STOCKHOLM — The best years were still ahead for Susanna Yakes and her 12-year-old daughter, Adriana. The two danced to music around the house and screamed together on roller coasters — still ahead were more adult milestones like travel and love.
“I could see it on her face, you know, when the rose is almost ready to open,” Ms. Yakes said, adding that she was excited for the vibrant woman her daughter was becoming.
That all changed one night in 2020 when Adriana went for a walk with her dog and got caught in the middle of a gang conflict outside a restaurant.
“I didn’t know until I lost my daughter that there are different kind of tears,” said Ms. Yakes, 34, who two years later still visits Adriana’s grave twice a week.
The killing of young Adriana, an innocent bystander, became a prominent part of a steadily swelling epidemic of gun violence in Sweden, which now has some of the highest rates of gun homicides in Europe.
As Sweden votes on Sunday in parliamentary elections, gun crime looms large for a country more commonly associated with its high living standards, women’s rights and welcoming asylum policies.
The gun issue, amid an energy crisis and soaring inflation, has helped spawn an exceptionally tight race — one entwined with deeper questions about Swedish identity, a diversifying country and a failure to integrate immigrants, especially those who arrived in Sweden during Europe’s migration crisis in 2015.
Other European countries like Germany with similar levels of immigration have not experienced the same rise in gun violence, and with many cases unsolved, researchers say more study is needed to understand the epidemic.
But the debate has offered fodder for conservative parties in an already tense campaign, especially the far-right Sweden Democrats, a contender for Sweden’s leading opposition party who are using the violence to further a longstanding anti-immigrant agenda.
The center-left Social Democrats — already governing without a majority in Parliament — find themselves in perhaps their most precarious position after a century of dominating Swedish politics.
The government argues that more resources and employment opportunities must also be put toward integrating the segregated, immigrant-heavy suburbs that ring major cities where the gun violence has been concentrated.
But fearful of losing more voters, it has capitulated to public concerns by adopting tougher policies on crime, even as the far right and other conservatives are calling for even harsher steps.
“Too much migration and too weak integration has led to parallel societies where criminal gangs have been able to grow and gain a foothold,” Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said last month, as she introduced measures expanding police powers and lengthening punishments for serious weapons offenses.
Such calls in the middle of the election campaign left the victims of crimes frustrated that they were being used as political pawns and the residents of Sweden’s poorer neighborhoods feeling marginalized by a nation that promised them equal treatment.
“Crime is, to a certain degree, also a question of how we see immigrants and how we see the multicultural society,” said Magnus Blomgren, a professor of political science at Umea University, in northern Sweden, adding that the issue had now taken on outsize importance in a country of shifting demographics.
“We have a picture of what we are,” he said. “But that is changing.”
And for now, uncomfortably so.
A fifth of Sweden’s 10 million residents were born abroad — split between European migrants and an increasing number of migrants from countries like Syria, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan in the past decade.
But in cities like Stockholm, Malmo and Gothenburg — where a higher proportion of migrants have settled compared with the rest of the nation — the media and residents alike point to two separate worlds: a polished city center emblematic of the nation’s wealth, and poorer, ethnically diverse outer suburbs where police officers carry tourniquets to stem gunshot wounds.
“Linking it to migration is in the interests of those that are interested in creating a very simplified reality and creating polarization,” said Amir Rostami, a sociologist at the University of Gavle. “We are only seeing this very narrowly.”
From 2010 to 2018, the number of shootings in Sweden rose rapidly. The police this year have so far recorded 273 shootings in what they expect could be Sweden’s worst year ever. The current record number of shootings was set in 2020, at 379.
In a country with strict gun laws, where licenses are usually limited to hunting rifles, criminologists have linked the shootings to the illegal drug trade and say they have been fueled by a stockpile of thousands of firearms smuggled in from postwar Balkan countries, Eastern Europe and Turkey.
Still, as the nation closed in on the election, lawmakers zeroed in on promises of law and order, citing gang warfare and riots in some Swedish towns.
That focus left some migrants in neighborhoods outside of cities like Stockholm mistrustful of the authorities and feeling like second-class citizens even after decades in the country.
“We came with hopes and aspirations,” said Axel Shako, an activist from London involved at the Fryshuset youth center in north Stockholm. “The question should be for the politicians. We are just doing our best.”
The victims of gun violence, too, say that they are weary of watching lawmakers clash while little progress has been made on reversing the problem.
“When he died, I didn’t see the point of living,” said Maritha Ogilvie, whose son Marley Fredriksson, 19, who was Black, was shot and killed seven years ago in Stockholm.
Since then, Ms. Ogilvie has campaigned for harsher punishments for gun crimes — but she believes programs supporting young teenagers are equally important, frustrated by a system that she says has not done enough to protect people of color like her son.
“They are trying to run a country that they don’t even understand,” she said, referring to lawmakers, despite their promises to address the problems. “Racist parties,” she said, were simply using the issue to get voters.
For Carolina Sinisalo, the grief of a shooting that killed her 15-year-old son, Robin, and partly paralyzed her older son Alejandro was nearly unfathomable.
Ms. Sinisalo, who lives in Stockholm’s Rinkeby neighborhood, which is known for shootings, is running this year as a Social Democrat for a local political office for the first time.
“The guns — it’s the tip of iceberg,” she said.
“The prime issue here is the schools and the ability to get to work,” Ms. Sinisalo said, adding that despite supporting harsher laws for gun violence, the tenor of the campaign had shocked her. “Nobody is born criminal.”
The cases remain unsolved. They join about 70 percent of gun homicides that are uncleared in Sweden, and researchers say tackling that could help address the problem.
But police officers, who blame local gangs for the shootings, say they face challenges in getting witnesses to speak on the record and collecting enough evidence to prosecute suspects in the Swedish justice system, which does not allow anonymous witnesses — something that conservatives have proposed changing.
That is little comfort for the victims’ families.
Stockholm has begun sending more police officers and security guards to neighborhoods where shootings are more frequent. On a recent afternoon, one officer, Rissa Seidou, stopped to chat with passers-by during a routine neighborhood patrol.
Inspector Seidou has lost track of the gun crime scenes and funerals she has attended in the past few years. Now, she is working on a policy strategy she believes will save lives: building connections with the local community to encourage residents to report unusual behavior to the police.
Inspector Seidou advises parents to send their children away if she believes they are at risk of being hurt, and she hosts information sessions for parents on the Swedish legal system.
“For me, it’s not about getting more police officers,” said Inspector Seidou, adding that she was frustrated with the way officials had handled the issue. “We need to use them well.”
Underage offenders in Sweden are already facing less leniency if they commit serious crimes, as the government said last month that it would increase the sentence for serious weapons crimes.
But social workers and youth organizations have called harsher punishments a Band-Aid solution that ignores the larger problem of the inequality dividing Sweden, including better resources for school programs, work opportunities and mental health.
“I wish those questions were as urgent and as important as the question of putting them away in prison,” said Camila Salazar Atias, a criminologist at Fryshuset, a national youth organization that runs programs for at-risk children.
Juri Escobar knows from personal experience what needs to be done, he says. A former gang member, Mr. Escobar served a 10-year prison sentence for murder, blaming a difficult upbringing for leading him into that lifestyle.
“Harder punishments will not work,” he said. “You have give them an option, give them a treatment.”
Today, he runs Vision 24, a program that he says collaborates with the police and social services in Stockholm to help about 30 men disengage from criminal groups every year. More recently, he has been getting calls from smaller towns in Sweden.
“Nobody wants to live this life,” Mr. Escobar said.
Christina Anderson contributed reporting from Malmo, Sweden.