Opinion For Members

OPINION: Sweden's murder rate is lower than in the 1970s, so why is no one talking about it?

Christian Christensen
Christian Christensen - [email protected]
OPINION: Sweden's murder rate is lower than in the 1970s, so why is no one talking about it?
Police on the scene after a shooting in Fittja, outside Stockholm, in March. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

If you read international news coverage of Sweden, you would be forgiven for having the impression that Sweden is experiencing levels of murder never seen before. But if you look at the numbers, they tell a different story, argues journalism professor Christian Christensen.


This impression is often rooted the somewhat utopian view of Sweden as a nation previously devoid of violence, and the dystopian view of Sweden as a nation now drowning in a sea of crime.

So, what do the numbers tell us?

They tell us that we should beware of both utopianism and dystopianism. 

Last week, the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (BRÅ) released nationwide crime statistics for 2023. BRÅ reported that there were 121 murders in Sweden last year, a rate of 1.14 murders per 100,000 residents. This is a slight increase from 2022 when there were 116 murders and a rate of 1.10. Another phenomenon is a rise in the use of guns. In 2023, 53 of 121 murders (44 percent) were committed with a firearm: a decrease from 2022 when 63 of 116 (54 percent) murders involved guns, but a clear increase from 2013 when 23 of 87 murders (29 percent) involved firearms. 

READ ALSO: Has Sweden's wave of deadly gun violence peaked?

The rise in gun-related crime in Sweden over the past few years has led to a great deal of international media coverage, much of it high on sensationalism, but low on context. A new report from Sky News in the UK, for example, covered new gang activity and use of guns. The story noted the increase in gun homicides, and that in 2022 Stockholm had a gun homicide rate 25 times that of London. These are, of course, serious issues. But the report did not ask if gun use has led to significantly more murders per capita than in previous years. In fact, the overall homicide rate in Sweden was never mentioned at all.


So, what are the facts? 

First, yes, there has been a rise in gun homicides. But that rise has corresponded with a decrease in the use of other weapons (knives, in particular). The per capita homicide rate in Sweden over the past 30-40 years has remained remarkably stable. From 2002-2004 the average per capita homicide rate was 1.06 per 100,000. Two decades later, from 2021-2023, the rate was 1.11. By international standards, these are low numbers. But, how about further back? With increasing gang crime and use of guns, there were surely more murders per capita in 2023 Sweden than 30, 40 or 50 years ago? 


Only four years between 1980 and 1999 (1984, 1995, 1997, 1998) saw murder rates lower than that of 2023, and those rates only slightly lower. In fact, the three highest per capita homicide rates in Sweden in the last 40 years were those in 1989, 1991 and 1982. In all of these years, the rate was over 1.4 murders per 100,000 residents. No year the in the last 20 has come even close to that number.

But what about the 1970s? Let’s take the iconic year of 1974: ABBA won Eurovision with Waterloo, Olof Palme was Prime Minister and Björn Borg won his first Grand Slam title at the French Open. Well, 1974 also saw 102 murders committed in Sweden, a rate of 1.20 murders per 100,000. In other words, higher than the 2023 rate of 1.14. 

There is always a danger that writing a price like this will lead to accusations that I am “relativizing” or “downplaying” crime in Sweden. None of this is to argue that we shouldn’t be worried about gang crime or the use of guns, or that we should not be extremely concerned about the rise in murders of young people and women. 

What I am arguing is that many articles unnecessarily exploit a mythical image of Sweden from the past. A great deal of international news coverage of Sweden in recent years has followed a familiar pattern: hyped, emotive headlines and content creating the impression of a once utopian nation now in rapid, crime-ridden decline. A decline usually linked to immigration. All done without presenting and placing statistics into contemporary or historical context. It’s lazy journalism.


Those who watched or read the Sky News story would likely be surprised to hear that “murder hotbed” Sweden (as Sky News defined the country on social media) doesn’t even have the highest murder rate in the Nordic region. That dubious honor belongs to Finland, and has for years.

Violent crime is a problem in Sweden that can and should be covered on its own merits. But adding layers of context-free hype to that coverage does news consumers a disservice by creating a misleading impression. It’s easy to frame Sweden as a former utopia, a collapsing dystopia…or both. The truth, however, is found somewhere in the murky middle. The job of journalism is to find that middle and shed light on it.

Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism in the Department of Media Studies at Stockholm University. 


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Kevin 2024/04/03 16:12
Good article and highlights why you should always be careful with statistics . The point in case highlights that the narrative that immigration is bad and causes crime is not so clear cut as they would have you believe. So the above stats with context are not talked about. I agree it is part lazy journalism but it is also the publics lack of engagement that allows this to pass without question.

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