The Logic of Knife Control

In Great Britain, following decades of increasingly stringent gun control, private ownership of handguns was banned in 1997. And, in fact, there appear to be few firearms in private hands.

But the result has not been what was intended. Crime rates in the U.K. have risen steadily, and violent crime has increased alarmingly in recent years. London is currently in the grip of a crime wave, as one brutal, sensational murder follows another. The perpetrators are nearly always young, and the crimes, often unspeakably vicious, are generally of the type conventionally labeled “senseless.” The weapon of choice these days is the knife, and British papers are full of discussion of what to do about “knife crime.”

Most recently, two French graduate students in biochemistry were tied up, gagged and stabbed a total of 250 times. Their bodies were then set on fire. Police say that the murderer apparently stole two Sony playstations from the victims.

The epidemic of violence has gotten so bad that London’s Metropolitan Police say that “knife crime,” rather than terrorism, is now the department’s number one priority:

Sir Paul’s announcement came after a 16-year-old boy became the eighteenth teenager to die a violent death in the capital this year. There were 26 youth murders in 2007.

Shakilus Townsend called out for his mother as he lay dying in a street in Thornton Heath, South London, on Thursday. He was ambushed by masked teenage boys who attacked him with a baseball bat and a knife with a 30cm blade. A young girl with the gang watched his murder.

So far, efforts to crack down on knives haven’t worked:

In May the Metropolitan Police launched Operation Blunt 2, a high-profile initiative to tackle knife crime that involved taking airport-style metal detectors and using special powers to search youths for knives within high-risk areas. …

Sir Paul said: “Sadly, in recent days, more young people have lost their lives to knife crime. This is not tolerable and clearly the message is not getting through.”

Police have tried several approaches to reach out to youngsters involved in knife crime: persuasion, coercion and even shock tactics. In May, Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, announced a £5 million package to tackle violent crime, with action to crack down on knives in hotspots across Britain. Every initiative has failed to stop the stabbings in the capital.

Of course, banning knives isn’t an option in the way that banning guns is. Pretty much everyone needs to own knives for reasons having nothing to do with either crime or self-defense. Beyond that, the world is full of sharp objects and hard objects that can be used as weapons. It shouldn’t be surprising that the British government’s effort to “crack down on knives” hasn’t worked. Maybe they should try cracking down on murderers.

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