Page last updated at 13:55 GMT, Wednesday, 24 May 2006 14:55 UK

Are knife amnesties worthwhile?

Ian Johnston, Vernon Coker, Bernie Gravett
Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker launched the amnesty in London
Amnesties aiming at tackling knife crime have begun across the UK.

It is the first major initiative since 1995, when amnesties took place following the murder of London head teacher Philip Lawrence - but how effective can such campaigns be?

Bright red secure wheelie bins are to be placed in the public reception areas of police stations over the next five weeks to allow people to deposit weapons, while posters advertising the amnesty will be placed in bus stops and telephone boxes.

The focus is on tackling a burgeoning knife culture among young people, an increasing number of whom admit to bringing knives into schools as "protection". Boys aged 15 and 16 are particularly involved.

"This campaign really isn't aimed at the hardened gangster, who's not going to be affected by the advertising, but at people who could drift into knife crime, could get into it because of peer pressure or because of some misguided feeling," said British Transport Police Chief Constable Ian Johnston, who speaks on knife crime for the Association of Chief Police Officers.

It's not a police or government issue - it's an issue for everybody
Shaun Bailey
community worker

Police say they intend to target knife possession after the amnesty comes to an end, as well as continuing to support education awareness projects.

'Youth victimisation'

Campaigners say amnesties alone can not make a difference.

Criminologist Dr Marian Fitzgerald of the University of Kent believes children have to feel they are safe.

"As well as looking at young people as offenders and potential offenders, I think we've got to start to take youth victimisation much more seriously," she said.

"They feel very unprotected by adults, they feel the police are only there to harass them, and in that space between the end of school and going home, they tell me that's when they feel most scared."

Anyone who goes out of the house carrying a knife, they don't go out with the expectation that they are going to commit a murder, but that is a possibility
Frances Lawrence

Mr Lawrence's widow Frances said the amnesty would not be a "solution" on its own.

"Anyone who goes out of the house carrying a knife, they don't go out with the expectation that they are going to commit a murder, but that is a possibility - as it is that they themselves may be killed, so hopefully this will raise this issue in mind of young men and young girls carrying knives," she said.

Mrs Lawrence supports better education on the dangers, but also a tightening of knife possession laws.

Along with pressure group Mothers Against Murder And Aggression, she is calling for a minimum five-year jail term for anyone caught with a knife or offensive weapon, in line with the mandatory prison term for gun possession.

West London-based community worker Shaun Bailey said the amnesty was "more symbolic than practical".

I know girls who carry knives for their protection, why would they give these to the police?
Bella London

"It's not a police or government issue - it's an issue for everybody," he said. "People need to address their young children and ask them what they are doing.

"You need to go down the route of education and discuss the nitty gritty. We go in there and tell it like it is."

But Mr Bailey is against metal detectors in schools, as pupils might feel they are in an "unsafe" environment and be encouraged to carry knives.

"A lot of young people now carry a knife now through fear, because most young people's interaction with crime is as a victim," he said.

'Minimise the risk'

Following the 1995 amnesty, 40,000 potentially lethal weapons were handed in to police.

And figures for the 12 months after a knife amnesty in Scotland in 1993 show that murders fell by 26%, attempted murder by 19% and offensive weapons possession by 23%.

Philip Lawrence
The last major knife amnesty followed Philip Lawrence's death

According to the Home Office, the use of knives in assaults and robberies in England and Wales has fallen by 25% since 1995.

Official statistics, however, show that over the past decade, knives were the commonest weapon used in violent deaths and were used in about a third of all unlawful killings in the 2004-2005 period

Knife possession legislation is being reviewed across the UK.

Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker said attitudes needed to be changed.

He cited the murder of Luke Walmsley, a 15-year-old stabbed to death by a fellow pupil in Lincolnshire in 2003.

"The boy that killed him said he never intended to use his knife, but on the spur of the moment he pulled it out and used it.

"It is this kind of crime we are trying to stop. We are trying to minimise the risk. If we save one life then it will be worth it."

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