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Page last updated at 09:50 GMT, Wednesday, 16 July 2008 10:50 UK

The point of knives

pointed long knife crime

By Alan Connor
BBC News Magazine

Most fatal stabbings involve a weapon that is easy to obtain and sharp with it - a kitchen knife. Would stopping the sale of long blades with sharp points help save lives?

What would reduce the number of fatal stabbings? England and Wales' Chief Inspector of Probation Andrew Bridges has warned against "spectacular innovations" and wants the debate to focus on "mundane truths".

Graph of homicides by sharp instrument

One idea, first proposed in 2005, is a response to a grisly mundane truth expressed by Met chief Ian Blair this week - that "the most common knife involved in these deaths is a knife from a kitchen".

The proposal came from three emergency medicine specialists, and it's a simple one: getting rid of the points on the ends of longer kitchen knives.

Drs Emma Hern, Will Glazebrook and Mike Beckett wrote an editorial in the British Medical Journal, suggesting that since "many assaults are impulsive", government action could "drastically reduce the availability" of a "potentially lethal weapon".

So what would the effect have been if, in 2003, the government had persuaded knife manufacturers to offer a greater range of styles, with the pointed-end, long-blade design no longer the default?

Dr Beckett puts it simply: if long pointed knives had become less available, we would have seen fewer deaths from knife injuries.

Of course, there would have been other effects. Other readers of the BMJ were quick to list dishes which need a pointed knife during preparation: butterflying a leg of lamb, carving a forerib of beef, and so on.

The self-styled maverick American chef Anthony Bourdain went further, saying that for chefs, knives "are extensions of our arms, and in many ways, our personalities", adding "where there is no risk, there is no pleasure".

Tools of trade

However, the idea of pointed knives disappearing completely is not a plausible one - still less the image of policemen requiring every law-abiding home cook to hand over their beloved kitchenware.

For everyday cooking, a square-end or blunt-ended knife is OK
Anthony Worrall Thompson

In their original article, the doctors argue that most preparation can be done using a combination of a "blunt, round nose" knife and another which, although sharp, is also short enough (under 5cm) to render it less likely to be lethal if used as a weapon.

TV chef Anthony Worrall Thompson agrees, observing that in the Far East, pointed knives are used very rarely and that "for everyday cooking, a square-end or blunt-ended knife is OK".

However, objections to the doctors' proposal have not just been culinary.

A common response has been to point out that inflicting a knife injury is already illegal, and that government effort would be better expended on enforcing existing laws.

This is unsurprising, since the initial article explicitly called for "banning the sale of long pointed knives" - and a call for a ban rarely does more than add another item to the "call to ban..." list.

Roger Gale
I would suggest the much more basic but practical response is capital punishment
Conservative MP Roger Gale

Calls for bans are also rarely watertight solutions. So while Mothers Against Knives are pro-ban, they are in the minority. West Yorkshire police chief Tom McGhie says it would be "probably impractical and unenforceable in practice".

And MP Roger Gale says that if long pointed knives were banned, "then a panoply of carpenters' and plumbers' 'weapons', such as hammers and screwdrivers, will have to be taken out of circulation".

Reduce opportunity

Dr Beckett denies that this analogy holds, and says that long pointed knives will not always be replaced by similarly fatal weapons. He cites an unintended effect of the switch from coal gas to non-toxic North Sea gas: fewer suicides.

Law prohibits possession of knives in public without good reason or lawful authority
Except folding pocket knife with blade no more than three inches
Individual has to demonstrate good reason for possession in public place eg sporting purposes, part of a profession

"People said, 'oh, if you want to commit suicide, you will find a way.' But it did reduce the rate."

Another unintended reduction in suicide rates has been associated with the introduction of catalytic converters to car. And another drop in suicides came, this time intentional, following the reduction in the quantities in which paracetemol can be bought.

Today, Dr Beckett talks about a change in kitchen culture rather than solely about a ban - and that may be the more intriguing possibility.

It remains a grim picture - the doctors would prefer to deal with non-fatal attacks from cleavers or short pointed knives rather than fatal stabbings.

It's nowhere near a complete solution to the complex problem of knife crime - but neither is it meant to be. Why people carry knives and how they are prosecuted remain different questions.

A short thin-bladed knife, with a stiff blade, about 7cm in length - many lock knives and small sheath knives fall into this group. Larger knives (ornamental daggers, militaria) require far greater force
Stab Wound Dynamics, Journal Forensic Science Society

Rather, says Dr Beckett, it's a possibility for design to help save lives.

"Car manufacturers constantly refine their product to make them less likely to cause harm. Razor blades have been redesigned so as not to slit your throat.

"Kitchen knives could be redesigned so that they retain their cooking function, but are not lethal. But as it stands, you can go into a supermarket and buy for £10 something that's a murder weapon - no questions asked."

Send us your comments using the form below.

How utterly ridiculous - the user is the criminal, not the knife. There was a piece of research recently which suggested that more lethal damage is done by kicking than anything else. What next, are we to have our feet amputated?
Veronica, Cardiff

What we need is the presence of more law enforcement. We need more police, more stop and search. If you have the law but no enforcers, what is the point of having it anyway? Even if only blunt knives are allowed, how about a sharpened pencil? A long nail, they all can cause damage.
Colin, London

The real issue that needs to be addressed by our society, is why a proportion of today's youths feel so unhappy, frustrated and full of malice that they feel the urge to carry knives with the intent to harm and kill. With this level of hatred and desire to inflict injury on another human being (often without a second thought or reason), changing the design of all kitchen knives would be nothing more than a minor inconvenience.
Dave, Essex

If anything, it is a great concept for knife manufacturers to look into. If someone could create a "safe" set of kitchen utensils, what parent wouldn’t want them? Ultimately, to ban all "pointy things" would be impossible and downright stupid. This is only a band-aid solution and will not solve the problem. Can you imagine the cost involved of replacing every long pointed knife? Who will pay for this? I am not going to give in my expensive kitchen knife for some stunted knock-off. This would be a logistical nightmare!
Cameron, London

I remember as a child being able to buy plastic commando style knives that had points, but when pressed against anything, the blade retracted into the handle. Yet they could be used in a cutting or slashing style without the retraction of the blade - maybe this could be an idea used in household knives?
Ian, Preston, Lancashire

A couple of years ago, the City Council here in Glasgow proposed to introduce a ban on glasses in pubs, clubs and other venues in the city, as some people use glasses as weapons in a fight. This would have meant that anyone who wanted a glass of wine in a restaurant or a pint in a bar would have to drink from a plastic tumbler. Understandably, there was an outcry over this, further exacerbated when a police representative suggested that "no-one needs those big chef knives" and that they should be banned too (after all, no-one cooks their food from scratch, right?). Thankfully, common sense prevailed, and the council opted not to treat us like toddlers.
A, Glasgow

Coming from a mixed Chinese/Western household I can tell you that a blade missing the tip (traditional Chinese knives generally don't have tips) won't make a difference. It would at best lead to a change in knifing tactics, from stabbing to hacking. Anyone who has witnessed gang violence in China using Chinese knives can tell you they're just as lethal. When are we going to face the real issues and hold the parents responsible for (not) educating their children?
Michael, Glasgow

Or we could address the ACTUAL cause of knife crime: poverty and lack of education. Blunting the end of my kitchen knives is a sticking plaster at best. Let's focus on keeping kids in schools, helping them form career goals, and giving them constructive activities after school. This will not only cut down on knife crime, it will reduce theft, Asbos, drug us (and its associated crime), and a host of other destructive behaviours.
Stephanie, Bristol

Ridiculous. My favourite all-purpose knife is a 7" chef's knife. The point is useful for all manner of operations in the kitchen. Having to swap blades all the time for piercing operations would be both inconvenient and more likely to result in a dropped blade injuring me. I've used a similar blade where the point had been chipped off in an injudicious attempt to separate frozen things and it was plain awkward. Tools that are awkward to use are dangerous. A recent story on this site recounted the lethal use of a 4" blade by a random stabber. There is a massive reservoir of existing cutlery with points, would this have to be handed in and melted/ground down?
Russ, Leicester

I think it's an excellent idea. The impact will be gradual but worthwhile.
Kev, Kilmarnock

OK, so it might help in a small number of domestic "heat of the moment" instances, assuming that the perpetrator had replaced their existing knives with redesigned "blunt" versions (this is, in itself a longshot). But seriously, does anyone expect this to have an impact on those who carry knives on the street?
Joe Cole, Oxford

And after we've modified all kitchen knives (even though someone could still just file them down if they wanted), what then? Ban screwdrivers and paint scrapers? Ban nail guns and garden hoes? And how would you stop people using broken glass? If people want a weapon they will find one. Why inconvenience everyone else?
Abi, Nottingham

It would be good practice for manufacturers to provide less lethal knives, as I often wonder when using my own knives at home, how dangerous they can be. However I'm opposed to banning knives, just like the ban on guns, as the people likely to use them will still find ways to obtain them, or something else just as dangerous. The whole crux of this issue lies with human rights, and the right for life, and a society that seems unable to develop some children into thoughtful adults.
Nick, Swindon

This is not about knives, this is about drug-related crime by gangsters. I have seen a youth who lives nearby threatening others with a golf club. There is no golf course within a seven-mile radius. Shall we ban golf, or ask golfers to use less dangerous clubs? Snooker, darts, baseball... where will it end? This is a social problem. Get tough on drug dealing and watch the number of murders decline.
Allan Dickhart, Basingstoke

The real problem lies with the attitude of the individuals who carry knives and those who cover up their crimes. This is what should be dealt with, knives are harmless except when in the wrong hands.
Nicola Ragon, Brentwood, Essex, UK

Pointed knives have been around ever since the first caveman banged two pieces of flint together. Maybe we should concentrate on why they have suddenly become a threat to society rather than trying to remove them. Deal with the problem not the symptoms.
M Randall, Wakefield, UK

A ban is unworkable but maybe persuading manufacturers to make new knives safer is a good idea and will ultimately mean fewer lethal knives are available. We don't need a point on most knives so why have one? There will always be a way of killing someone and it is culture that must change. But a simple change to the design of most knives seems sensible, practical, as well as sending a message without being a total cop-out to modern health and safety paranoia.
Simon Tutton , Wakefield

Simply treating the problem superficially by removing tips, or making knives harder to buy will make no difference. Knives do not kill people by design and they are pretty useful to have around for the kitchen. As with all weapons - it's the intention that kills, not the object. You could kill someone with a sharpened pencil or a plastic bag if you really had the urge.
Tim, London

If parents took more responsibility regarding where their kitchen knives are, this wouldn't be a problem. I mean, WHO doesn't notice when a kitchen knife goes missing?
Will Cole, London

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