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Britain faces growing knife-crime culture

Prime Minister Gordon Brown last week proposed a zero-tolerance policy, but experts say tougher penalties are only part of the solution.

By Mark Rice-OxleyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 12, 2008

Tribute: The family (above) of Harry Potter actor Rob Knox, who was fatally stabbed May 25 while trying to protect his brother (c.), say they hope the incident will spur action to thwart knife crime.

Reuters

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London

Britain is redoubling its efforts to stop young people carrying knives, after a volley of fatal teenage stabbings and headlines warning that the country is in the grip of a knife-crime epidemic.

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Police have embarked on a stop-and-search operation to retrieve weapons, the government has warned of tougher sentencing for teenage culprits, and a "youth summit" has come up with a $6 million ad campaign to warn of the perils of carrying a knife.

And yet experts differ strongly on whether this is a sudden phenomenon that is taking the country into perilous new territory, or just a blip that is generating a disproportionate response from the authorities.

The data is inconclusive. Government figures show fatal stabbings hover at just over 200 every year, with occasional spikes above 250. This time appears no different, despite shrill headlines warning of "blade-mad Britain" each time another teenager dies in a public altercation.

"There have been a number of high-profile incidents and that gives the impression that the problem is more widespread than it actually is," says Enver Solomon, deputy director of London King's College's Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. "There hasn't been an underlying increase in the number of people murdered by sharp implements."

Proponents of this view point out that two of the best-known victims of stabbings in Britain died in the 1990s and the third in 2000. Knife murder is nothing new here.

Some even argue that this is not an epidemic of knife crime, just an epidemic of press stories about knife crime. "The BBC now puts any murder in the national news," said Simon Jenkins, a prominent commentator. "The effect of this nationalization of social panic is that you get knee-jerk policy reactions," he told BBC radio.

And yet surveys and anecdotal evidence do indicate that knives are becoming more prevalent. In the last two weeks in May, police conducted stop-and-search operations to get knives off the streets. They recovered 193 weapons from 4,000 stops – a rate of around 5 percent.

Ken Jones, president of Britain's Association of Chief Police Officers, says that although overall knife-crime figures are stable, convictions for possession are on the increase.

Dr. Ravi Dasan, an emergency department consultant in central London, says he sees more and more stab wounds, most involving the common kitchen knife. "It's a different story from 10 years ago when you didn't have this kind of violent crime."

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