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.

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.

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.

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."

Among many teens, carrying knives is cool

Roger Matthews, a criminologist at London South Bank University, says that surveys of youth show that a "very significant percentage of young people routinely carry knives." He attributes knives' increased popularity to Britain's strong anti-gun legislation. Though gun crime has also been increasing in recent years as a gang culture proliferates in big cities, weapons remain far harder to access than in the US. "The great attraction of knives is that they are enormously accessible and can be acquired from different places. Very often they aren't machetes, they are just kitchen knives," he says.

But there's another attraction, he says: Knives have become culturally cool, and the challenge will be to break that association. He draws an analogy with the rise and fall of crack cocaine in the US in the 1980s and 1990s. Once thought of as cool, crack quickly became seen as unsavory and undesirable because of effective campaigns, he says.

"In the same way, you have to take the culture of knife crime so the message has to be given out that carrying knives is not cool or clever and there has to be a cultural association made so that young people do not see it as a positive thing to do," he says.

So what can be done to take knives off the street? Police stop-and-search operations use portable knife arches and hand-held wands. Powers to screen and search pupils without consent were introduced last year.

Gordon Brown has signaled a zero-tolerance approach to knives, announcing last week that teenagers as young as 16 years old would face prosecution just for carrying a blade.

'Youth violence is out of hand now'

But tougher penalties are only part of the solution, experts say. Dr. Dasan wants to see more youth education on how lethal a blade can be. Britain's grim new ad campaign is a start.

Another medical expert, Dr. Mike Beckett, argues that it is time to remove sharp knives from kitchens altogether. He says there is no need for the pointed tips that make knives fatal. "What people want in a kitchen knife is the edge," he told the BBC. "The point on the end of the knife actually serves little culinary purpose, but it is the point that kills people."

Uanu Seshmi, who works with troublesome children in the south London district of Peckham, calls for both carrot and stick.

"We need to have zero tolerance in terms of the way we deal with violence, not just knife and gun crime, but youth violence, which is just out of hand now," he says. "But we must also have a comprehensive rehabilitation system in this country that rehabilitates young people by dealing with the emotional problems they have and addressing the challenges of life."

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