Sweden's gun crime epidemic is spiralling out of control

26 June 2021

4:00 PM

26 June 2021

4:00 PM

The shots were fired at 1pm on a Sunday, in spite of a heavy police presence at the scene. A 44-year-old shop owner was killed by a bullet to the head. The murder victim was a hard-working man who was trying to make a better life for his family. Now he is dead: another victim of Sweden’s gun-violence epidemic.

On 28 May, two days before the shooting, riots had broken out in the same neighbourhood, the immigrant area of Hjällbo (pronounced ‘Yel-boo’) in Gothenburg, as a local criminal gang clashed with shop owners and their relatives.

On the surface, the events were sparked when a 14-year-old boy was pushed off his moped. But according to police, the riots and murder took place against a backdrop of hostilities between clans and a criminal gang. After the killing, people with connections to the murdered man were stopped by police at the Swedish border after attempting to travel from Germany.

Hjällbo remains tense as locals fear retaliation attacks. At least one school postponed re-opening fully out of concern for the safety of its pupils; parents spoke of their worries about letting their children go outside.

It’s hard to blame people for being afraid: last summer, gangs even set up roadblocks and checkpoints to stop cars coming into the neighbourhoods under their control. The state’s monopoly on violence is being openly challenged.

Sweden was plunged into a political crisis last week. Meanwhile, the country’s other crisis –– escalating violent crime –– rages on as before.

While these events have played out in Hjälbo, a well-known rapper has been on trial in Stockholm for allegedly conspiring to kidnap a rival artist. The suspect, known as Yasin, was recently awarded the Swedish equivalent of the Grammy as ‘hip-hop artist of the year’, but was unable to attend the gala because he was in police custody. He is pleading not guilty.

The term ‘Swedish gangster rapper’ may sound like an oxymoron to foreign ears, but the rap scene plays an integral role in Sweden’s gang wars. Rappers brag about their gang affiliations, and make constant references to their weapons and crimes in their lyrics and music videos. Other suspects in the ongoing Swedish rap trial are said to have procured a bomb that they were planning to place at a victim’s house.

What is happening in Sweden? Since 2015, deadly violence has spiked in what many still think of as a quiet corner of Scandinavia. This spate of violence is mainly due to the country’s bloody gang wars, in which both perpetrators and victims are often young men of immigrant origin. The period between 2016 and 2020 saw a yearly average of 112 homicides, compared to an average of 87 in the preceding five years.

This spike in the number of killings has occurred alongside another worrying trend: an increase in gun crime. The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (BRÅ) revealed last month that Sweden now has among the worst rates of deadly gun violence in Europe. The level of gun homicide in Sweden stands at roughly four deaths per million inhabitants per year. The average for Europe is much lower: approximately 1.6 deaths per million inhabitants. No other country in the BRÅ study has experienced a leap in gun violence comparable to that of Sweden.

Meanwhile, Sweden’s epidemic of bombings has no equivalent in the Western world. As the liberal daily Expressen commented in a recent editorial: ‘How could we allow Sweden to turn into Europe’s gangster paradise?’

Nine out of ten murders or attempted murders involving a firearm were committed by first-or second-generation immigrants, according to a 2017 report by Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter. The question of any possible link between immigration and violent crime is a toxic one in Sweden, which politicians have long preferred to shy away from.

Statistics have so far been hard to come by, since the government agency which collects the data, Brå, has refused to make figures public. Its last comprehensive study of the representation of immigrants among crime suspects covers the years 1997-2001; it showed that immigrants (or those with a foreign background) were considerably more likely than Swedes to be suspected of involvement in certain crimes, including sexual violence. And when it was published in 2005, it sparked an intense debate on xenophobia.

For years, the government has argued that there is no need to make more recent statistics on the matter publicly available. Two years ago, Brå finally announced that an updated study will be published this autumn. It is highly anticipated and is certain to be the subject of intense and fractious debate when it is released in the coming months.

With clan feuds, a spike in gun violence and frequent bombings, Swedes have good reason to be worried about what is happening in their country.

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