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'What about Sweden makes it feel so safe?'

'What about Sweden makes it feel so safe?'

Published: 21 Dec 2012 16:08 GMT+01:00
Updated: 21 Dec 2012 16:08 GMT+01:00

In the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the United States, US-native and parent Rebecca Ahlfeldt reflects why Sweden feels like such a safe place to raise children.

In the days leading up to the Christmas holidays, while Swedish news is filled with complaints about snow removal and Disney’s cuts on the Christmas Eve classic “Santa’s Workshop,” the US news has been dominated by a much darker event: the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that took the lives of 20 children and six adults.

Here, as a token representative of “America” across the Atlantic, the question I've fielded most in the wake of this tragedy is this: Why does the US government allow its citizens to own guns at all, let alone semi-automatic weapons?

Why doesn't the country follow in the footsteps of Japan (or, for that matter, Sweden) and heavily restrict or ban gun ownership?

This is a hard question for me to answer, especially since I personally don’t agree that ordinary citizens should own guns. However, when asked these questions, I feel like I owe my native country a more thoughtful explanation.

The right to bear arms is, after all, the Second Amendment to the Constitution; a fundamental piece of the Bill of Rights. In fact, the amendment advocates for a “well regulated militia” as “necessary to the security of a free state.”

Yikes.

While I personally believe the Second Amendment is an outdated relic from another, much different society, I do recognize this fundamental stumbling block: If you start messing with the groundwork of the country, where do you stop? Does this mean that other rights, like freedom of speech, for example, can also be revoked?

And so the debates about gun control, mental health care, and other related factors begin.

But the question I haven’t been asked, the question that is just as relevant, is this: how do US parents feel about sending their kids to school every day after an event like this?

It is not, of course, the first school massacre to shake a quiet suburban town. And it’s only “successful” mass shootings that make national news; kids who bring guns to school but do not succeed in shooting anyone only make local news, if that.

While it’s true that, statistically, it’s much more dangerous for a child to get into a car than to go to school in the US, many of my US friends attest that there’s something about this kind of senseless violence that makes it hard to be rational.

Coming from California, often portrayed on film as a sunny, warm and glamorous paradise, I'm often asked by Swedes why we moved here. The incident at Sandy Hook is an awful and extreme example of the trade-off we made when we moved: “exciting” (but, for the record, not particularly warm or sunny) San Francisco for safer Sweden.

While Sweden, like all societies, has its problems, it is generally a wonderful place to be a child.

And as I dropped my own son Erik off at his elementary school today, I reflected once again on how happy I am that my kids are spending their younger years here.

It is a society where our kids can safely ride their bikes to school—in California, our suburban street was so dangerous that we had to drive our bikes to the local park in order to ride.

To my knowledge, schools do not spend time every year warning kids about “stranger danger.” The idea that a shooter might come to Erik’s school in Sweden has never once entered my mind.

Of course, it is still possible that our child could also be the victim of a school shooting. In fact, just last year, Sweden's neighbor Norway hosted its own horrible mass shooting.

But I really, truly believe it’s extremely unlikely to happen to us here in Sweden. I wouldn’t feel quite as confident if I lived back in the U.S.

What is it about Sweden that makes it feel safer here? A social safety net that includes mental health care? Fewer guns? Bike paths and slower traffic?

I'm not sure, but the difference is striking. Most kids here don’t spend their childhoods in fear of all the dangers in society. And neither do the parents.

I, like many others around the world, want my children to live in a more peaceful world, a world less driven by fear. A peaceful childhood in Sweden seems to be a good start.

It’s something Sweden does well, something that many other countries could learn from.

Rebecca Ahlfeldt is an American ex-pat writer, translator and editor currently based in Stockholm.

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Your comments about this article

17:12 December 22, 2012 by calebian22
"A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed"

See that pesky comma after free state? That is where most people who don't know diddly about the 2nd amendment, get it wrong. The second amendment establishes a militia to guard against a heavy handed government (Like the one in England the founding fathers were revolting against), and the second part, after the comma gives the people the right to individually arm themselves against both.
02:58 December 23, 2012 by entry
The concerted effort by the state sponsored/supplemented media and public officials to suppress news regarding violent crime greatly leads to the 'image' of Sweden's safe society.
03:10 December 23, 2012 by 5978
From another American, there are no easy answers for the tragedy that occurred in Sandy Hook CT. A culture bathed in violence from the "entertainment" industry, video games (all mass shooters have been ID'd by the FBI as gamers), a mainstream media that generally offers inane content, an inadequate mental health care and regulations, breakdown of the family, etc.

Relative to a sense of safety in Sweden, having traveled throughout the nation in 1973, I wondered what made the country so peaceful, the people so trusting. One factor seemed to be evident in talking with people, in a nation of generally a homogeneous group of people, ethnic, racial, religious/philosophy, etc., there seems to be less strife and discord. The same could be said of other European nations. Listening to Swedes, the Dutch, French and others, where the highest crime and strife took place was where immigration was the highest. It may be that eventually societies with significant immigration, everyone learns to live together peacefully. It is probably safe to say that the U.S. has the highest influx of immigrants of any nation on earth. It takes generations for people of different backgrounds to get along well. This condition does not directly address what happened in Sandy Hook, but America is an evolving society far more than most nations, and have social institutions to refine for the well being of all its citizens. In some ways, Sweden is fortunate, it has never had to deal with the same enormous challenges America has.
15:29 December 23, 2012 by Svensksmith
Well, I don't think the average citizen should own an automobile. Have you seen how those idiots drive out there?
23:57 December 23, 2012 by kenny8076
@ Entry... thank you.... i have been saying that for years. People here are absolutely blinded by what goes on in their country.... greatest denial country ive ever been in.

and as far as the article.... people make it seem like EVERY where in America has crime and murder. there are counties and sections that have barely or no crime at all. there hadnt been a murder in Newtown in over a decade. and the body they found was a missing women from the 80's. The town my grandfather lives in, in Michigan hasnt had a killing since the early 90's. he hasnt locked his doors since he's lived there since the 70's.
05:57 December 24, 2012 by redblue
615 277 Swedes have weapon permits, or about 9% of the adult population. Not a very low figure, is it?
07:32 December 24, 2012 by anonymous4
In the United States the National Rifle Association is very powerful. They don't seem to want to give up their weapons, including the right of all USA people to have assault weapons.
16:57 December 24, 2012 by VicTaulic
This is an example of a horrible tragedy that special interest groups love to hijack for their own purposes. This one something for everyone. Folks who want to ban guns, advocates for autism/asperger's/whatever, security companies, generic "protect the kid" types, and others.

The only conclusion that I draw is that if parents want to assign their right to educate their kids to a public or private institution, there are downsides.
09:33 December 25, 2012 by Karlo1
I lived most of my life in the states and have lived about 13 recent years in Sweden. I see many flaws in the statements made by the writer of the above story.

The population of Sweden is about 9 Million so since the states have about 40 times as many people, bad things will happen about 40 times as often. The sandy hook story, along with many other stories, does not prove that it is safer in Sweden. In fact, as far as safety goes I have seen no significant difference here. I live in Sweden, about 20 meters from a road that has a posted speed limit of 50 Km/Hr. About 90% of the drivers travel on this road at rates between 50 and 90 Km/Hr. This is an unsafe situation since we have 2 small children and so do 2 other families near us on the same street.

Another fact that comes to mind is that my 4 year old boy was non-aggressive and did not hit others with his hands or feet until a few weeks after he attended daggis here. Now, we have a lot of trouble trying to unlearn what he learned at swedish daggis. I live in a small village and a young girl was murdered and raped and on another occasion an eldery cititizen was stomped to death by a group of teen age boys. Good things happen here as well, just like they do in the states, except they happen more often in the states because there are more people.

To sum it up, nothing is special about Sweden. The variety of climates and choices

available in the states is much better than in Sweden. The climate, the goods for sale, and even the remaining freedoms. One of the negatives that stand out for me about Sweden is that they take much more in taxes than in the states and what the Swedish state returns for these high taxes is not worth it. I only stay here because I have a nice mate who wants to be near her family. There are many places in the world that are much better to live than Sweden.
11:01 December 25, 2012 by SecondGen
I live in Chicago, IL, USA and after the Sandy Hook shooting my son asked if that could happen in his school (he attends high school).

I told him the odds were higher of him being shot on the way to or from school than being shot in school, but even those were low because we live in a safe neighborhood and his high school already has armed officers in it (in fact, when I attended high school in the 1970's in Chicago we also had police officers in our school during the day, one was my football coach).

For the 2010-2011 school year, 319 Chicago Public School students were shot and wounded and 24 were killed outside of school, none inside as our schools have had police inside for decades. Since those children shot were primarily African American, no one really cares. Certainly when a drive by shooting kills a 7 or 8 year old, Chicago Police go a little gonzo in the hood and get a confession pretty quick (no clue if it's really the right guy, google "Chicago Police Torture scandal" for more info on that) people pretty much accept that minorities will be shot.

Guy drives a '62 Buick convertible into a bad neighborhood, gets shot in the stomach and tossed to the side of the road to die while some kids take the car for a 4 block joy ride and then abandon it. I drove my Porsche thru a bad neighborhood on a shortcut and three kids ran out into the street to throw bricks at me.

Guns aren't the problem in the United States, the culture is.
06:00 December 26, 2012 by randyt
From 1996 until 2004 I worked at a job that took me to Sweden dozens of times. I made most those trips to Stockholm but made trips also to Gothenberg and Karlstad. Sweden was and is one of the safest places I've every visited or lived in.

I also have lived in Japan for eight years, it is even safer than Sweden by most any measurement.

Here is the difference between these countries and the USA. Neither of these countries have a culture of death and violence. Sweden gave that up after the Vikings (as did all the Nordic countries) and Japan gave up violence as a means to settle disagreements after WW2. Americans would do well to look at these countries and model their laws after the ones there. (In fact it was the the American military that helped the Japanese write their anti-war constitution - seems soldiers that have seen the absolute uselessness of war that want it banned.)

The NRA has went from an organization that was more member oriented for the purpose of gun safety, hunting issues, and spot shooting issues. My father was a long time member - he is now 92 and says he left them when they became obsessed with mostly weapons of mass human killing. I'd add that they are now the single biggest gun lobby for the manufactures of guns designed with killing of humans as their only purpose. (You can check that out, research how much money they get from these companies.)

Last but not least anyone that after hearing of the slaughter of children in Newtown was "oh no they will come after my assault guns" are just heartless people. They should be made to view the photos of all the death in that school and if they still love their guns over humanity we should ask them to move to Somalia.
11:36 December 26, 2012 by Migga
@ Karlo1

If you want to bad mouth Sweden then you shouldn`t talk about traffic safety or violence at kindergardens. Sweden has one of the lowest, if not the lowest, rates of traffic related deaths and swedish boys fight less then in other countries;

http://www.thelocal.se/45050/20121213/

Sweden is one of the best countries in the world and you can live the a great life here if you want.
19:20 December 26, 2012 by CJ from Sunshine Desserts
Americans feel the need to defend themselves, but against what, its almost as if theyre still fighting the british 200 years ago...or waiting for the commies to invade. Seems the US can only win by violence, they have been at war every year now since 1941. Still any individual who is mentally disturbed can kill, only a few years ago a madman went wild in Gamla Stan with an iron bar...he killed one elderly woman. Check out Ted Nugent being interviewd by Piers Morgan on u-tube...it would be ironic if some NRA members lost family...
21:34 December 26, 2012 by eppie
@calebian

The 2nd amendment is too outdated to describe with words.

It doesn't have anything to do with the situation in the US for the last 200 years.

It is misused by people with interests in the weapons business.

It must be a good feeling to have the right to defend yourself with a gun, but all numbers show it is a fake feeling of security.

So supporting the 2nd amendment or not is a battle of heart against brain.

I tend to choose to use my brain.
08:46 December 27, 2012 by Kevin Harris
If the Founding Fathers took a walk through that Sandy Hook classroom that awful day, they would rewrite the US constitution in a minute.
18:10 December 27, 2012 by calebian22
Eppie,

The only thing I really agreed with in this op ed was her comment about messing with the Constitution and where does it stop. You might not like the 2nd Amendment, as I don't like the 14th for it's use to support anchor babies in modern times, but no system is perfect and messing with the foundation blocks is a slippery slope.

The 2nd will be a reality for the long term. To bad, so sad for you. Get used to it.
18:48 December 27, 2012 by Carbarrister
Look an all the mass murderers: Columbine, Va. Tech. Northern Illinois, the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords in Arizona and now in Sandy Hook, etc. All the shooters were well known to have serious mental problems. Parents, school administrators, etc, were unable to get them help because of concern for violating their "rights.'

What Sweden has that the USA does not is an effective mental health system. The right in the USA wanted to close down mental heath hospitals to save money and to "give people a choice." The left wanted to "main stream" those with mental problems.

The result is a complete failure where there is no effective mental health treatment absent an expensive and complicated commitment proceeding with very uncertain results.

The USA would be better served to focus on mental health rather than waisting time trying to register/control/collect the hundreds of millions of guns in the possession of its citizens.
14:56 December 28, 2012 by Keithy
Unfortunately, some people are too dumb to see that just doing something, anything, in light of this tragedy is the wrong way to go. Of course, there are others that are inherently anti-gun and just want to seize on this as an excuse to further their agenda. The people who think that human nature is today different than 200 years ago, or that governments can never be bad to their people anymore are just too ignorant to debate. How many examples of societal collapse and genocides do you need before you accept that free people should have the right to protect themselves and their families from anyone (including their government) that would do them harm? Since 2001, the need to protect oneself from tyrannical government is more relevant than ever. As the financial collapse gets ever closer, this need will continue to become even more relevant. The police cannot and do not ever prevent crime, they just investigate when it has already happened. This article was a fatuous and ignorant piece.
00:34 December 30, 2012 by RobinHood
Wierdos who think they need guns to protect themselves from tyranical governments, financial/social collapse, alien invasion, islamic terrorists and/or zombie apocolypse, should be interviewed by the FBI as potential mass murderers, given compulsory good citizenship classes, and submit themselves to medical evaluation. As for their gun collection, they can have that back when they have proved themselves mentally and morally fit to arm themselves with enough firepower to exterminate another school class. Which basically means ... never.

Wierdos shouldn't have guns.
00:38 December 30, 2012 by zeulf
IMHO it is the second amendment,

It also is the NRA, and the Culture of fear. the Shooters Mother had those

weapons due to the Fear of social breakdown and a need to "Defend" her household. That alone cost her and 26 other people their lives and her son too.

Had it been an enraged person with an Axe attempted the same thing, how far would that have gone ? Fear unfortunatly drives the American lifestyle. Sweden seems to have done a better job but its a vastly different society.

End result seems to be happier people.
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