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Last Updated: Friday, 7 November 2003, 10:00 GMT
Is knife crime really getting worse?
By Megan Lane & Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online Magazine

Concern about violent crime in Britain has swung back to knives and their availability to children. But has so-called "knife culture" risen while the media's attention has been so fixed on gun crime?

It's a shopping list likely to send a chill down the spine: kitchen knives, axes, razor sharp "cat skinners" and Ninja-style throwing knives.

Yet these and other potentially lethal weapons can be easily bought by children, according to a new national survey.

Almost half of shops tested broke the law by selling knives to children under 16, according to the Trading Standards Institute. And internet traders are even more of a push over because of the anonymity involved in buying something online.

Former Home Secretary Michael Howard
Michael Howard, launching an anti-knife campaign in 1996
Sceptics, however, might comment that it has always been thus. There's nothing new about youngsters seeking to boost their street cred by carrying a blade.

It used to be the lore of the playground that flick knives - illegal in the UK - could be effortlessly picked up across the Channel (and so retained a status as the ultimate souvenir from a French exchange trip).

So are we really witnessing a rise in so-called "knife culture" or is the recent coverage afforded to the issue in newspapers just a spot of media hysteria?

Evidence shows knife seizures are on the increase. The number of people convicted of carrying a blade in public rose from 2,559 in 1995 to 3,570 in 2000, according to the Home Office.

Reports from hospital A&E departments indicate a rise in stab wounds, particularly among young men aged between 14 and 25.

Daily routine

One expert with street-level experience is convinced more young people are arming themselves with knives these days.

Everybody goes to the market and buys kitchen knives - they say they want to use them in the kitchen, but they don't
Youth club member, John
"We are seeing more and more stab wounds - even five years ago, these were pretty rare. Young males in particular are carrying knives on a daily basis, and if they carry them, they use them," says John Heyworth, of the British Association for Accident and Emergency Medicine.

Those young men are often of school age, according to a survey by the Youth Justice Board this year. It found that of the crimes committed by young people, carrying a knife was the most common offence among children excluded from school (62%).

Undoubtedly, the problem is a predominantly urban one. Julie Jacobs, of the Streatham Youth Centre in south London, says some young people begin to carry knives from about the age of 11, when they first begin to venture out of their home patch.

Cyclone knife
A 'cyclone knife', bought online
"There is a sense that they need some sort of protection. It is a turf thing, a territory thing, but I don't think it is getting any worse."

So have youngsters themselves seen a rise in knife brandishing?

John, a 17-year-old at the Charter House Youth Club, in Southwark, London, believes the problem is "getting worse" although he does not know anyone who carries a knife.

He was once been threatened by three boys with kitchen knives, while on a bus.

"They were trying to jack me. They wanted my mobile phone and my money. There is nothing that can be done about people getting hold of knives. Everybody goes to the market and buys kitchen knives. They say they want to use them in the kitchen, but they don't."

Suspended from school

One 14-year-old from Peckham thinks there's a lot of bluster from kids trying to appear harder than they are.

Comb concealing a blade
Hidden in a comb - concealed blades are easily available
"I know people who brag about carrying knives. They say they have a great big butcher's knife. People say silly things."

He says a boy at his school was suspended after a knife was found in his bag. But generally, he says, the situation is getting better at his school.

"Maybe one day out of seven someone will say 'give me you money' or something, but I never have been threatened with a knife."

Of those that do brandish a blade, many justify it as in the interests of "self defence", says Unun Seshmi, who runs a charity called Boyhood to Manhood which is dedicated to steering young black people away from crime.

"They are walking around in fear of being stabbed. They feel there is nobody there to protect them. They don't want to go to the police. But they don't want to use the knife either."

Some of your comments on this story:

I carried knives while at school in the late 70s/early 80's. There was a need for protection in a school known for its violence. I still carry one today, every time I leave the house. I don't do this to intimidate people, and I've never used it - in fact I do my best to steer around trouble situations - but if caught in a dangerous situation I need to be able to protect myself, and I believe I have the right to.
Anon, Uk

In the late 1950s Mr Barnet-Janner, MP for Leicester, introduced a law against carrying offensive weapons during the Teddy Boy era. (Razors and knives were carried and used at that time by delinquents). The law was passed and rigorously enforced by the police. It was successful! So what happened?
Christopher J Wright, Spain

We still circle the problem - the penalties for carrying a knife should be severe as the only reason for doing so, whether or not in self-defence, is the intention of causing harm.
Phil K, UK

I think it would be a shame to see politically correct hysteria over knives. My father, a respectable and now retired gentleman, has carried a small pocket kife for many, many years, but as the blade is fraction over two inches long I believe he is guilty of carrying an offensive weapon.
Robert Jones, England

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