Sweden’s Gun Violence Epidemic

Sweden’s election earlier this month unseated the dominant centre-left Social Democrats, replacing them with a more right-leaning government. One of the primary factors behind the swing is the epidemic of gun violence the country is facing.

It’s surprising for Sweden, which is known for its progressive stances on women’s rights and asylum seekers, and its high living standards. Now, it’s also home to some of Europe’s highest gun homicide rates. Conservative politicians have used the escalation of gun violence to further anti-immigrant agendas.

In 2015, Sweden took in record numbers of asylum seekers, and generally has quite a high refugee intake. One fifth of their national population was born abroad. Migrants gravitate to Sweden’s big urban centres – Stockholm, Malmo, Gothenburg – where they often end up in poorer suburbs.

It’s in these migrant communities that a lot of shootings take place, emblematic of the lacklustre integration programs in the country. But right-leaning factions portray the issue in a less ambiguous manner.

Politicising gun violence

Before their election on the 11th of September, the secretary of the far-right Sweden Democrats, Richard Jomshof, spoke to voters. “The most important thing is to stop people from coming to Sweden,” he announced. “It took us generations to build a country like Sweden and in a couple of decades, a lot of things have gone the wrong way.”

This year’s election results have shown a swing to the right, unseating the long-standing reign of the left-leaning govenrment.

According to polls, violence was the top voter concern ahead of the election, with 41% of Swedes worried. Even the centre-left Social Democrats (who were previously in power) were feeling the pressure.

Back in August, then-Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said that “too much migration and too weak integration has led to parallel societies where criminal gangs have been able to grow and gain a foothold.” Andersson’s administration succumbed to voter calls for harsher punishments, extending police powers and lengthening jail sentences for weapons offenses.

A report published in 2021 by the Swedish national council for crime prevention found Sweden to be the only country in Europe where fatal shootings are up significantly since 2000. While the European average is 1.6 deaths per million inhabitants, in Sweden this figure is 4 deaths per million.

Shooting deaths more than doubled between 2011-2019, now accounting for 40% of violent deaths. The report agreed that this “increase in gun homicide in Sweden is closely linked to criminal milieux in socially disadvantaged areas”.

Researchers say shootings trigger more shootings – “a kind of social contagion”, says Klara Hradilova Selin, a researcher at BRA.

But affected community members say the issue is more complex. Maritha Ogilvie said after her 19-year-old son Marley was shot and killed, “[she] didn’t see the point of living.” In the seven years since the tragedy, she’s pushed for harsher punishments for gun crimes, as well as programs to support vulnerable youth.

“Racist parties,” she said, were simply using the issue to get voters. “They are trying to run a country that they don’t even understand.” Martin Gunér, a police officer in a suburb notorious for gun fights, agrees: “The problem with politics is that every four years [politicians] have to be re-elected, so they make very short-term promises.”

Cover image: Ulf Kristersson, leader of the Moderates, a centre-right party, who will be responsible for forming the new Swedish government. It’s widely agreed the coalition will be right-leaning.

Image credit: Moderaterna Ulf Kristersson Almedalsveckan by News Oresund is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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