Fearing a voter backlash over public safety, U.K. Conservatives are belatedly cracking down on violence involving sharp instruments.
While some British politicians tout the politically favorable claim that violent crime has fallen 38 percent since 2010, new data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) depicts a rather different and darker situation. The figures show that the number of people killed with knives in England and Wales in 2021 and 2022 was the highest since record-keeping began, 77 years ago. Across England and Wales, the number of knife offenses has increased by 34 percent since 2010. Now, 40 percent of all homicides involve a knife or sharp instrument.
A significant proportion of those killed are young. In 2021, the number of teenagers killed in London reached the highest level ever recorded. That year, in the capital, 30 people 13 and 19 years old were murdered, 27 of them killed with a knife. It’s the same story nationwide. According to ONS figures, in the 12-month period ending March 2022, 69 teenagers were murdered in England and Wales; knives or sharp instruments were used in 74 percent of all murders.
The case of Ghulam Sadiq is illustrative. Last August, the 17-year-old boy was stabbed to death outside his family’s home in Leytonstone, east London. He was attacked by 18-year-old Emadh Miah. During the trial, the Old Bailey jury heard how Miah had planned the entire event. He actively searched for Sadiq and waited for him to return home, having hidden a 22-inch-long machete in his trousers. When Miah found Sadiq, he chased him and eventually caught up with him. He then stabbed him in the back, inflicting a 6-inch wound and piercing Sadiq’s heart. He put the knife back in his waistband and cycled away, leaving Sadiq dying in the street.
The Offensive Weapons Act of 2019 was intended to ban the possession of these weapons. The law made it a crime to possess many dangerous items, such as firearms, brass knuckles, and knives. But the law is misleading. It’s illegal to carry them in public, but keeping these knives at home is legal. In one high-profile incident, a policeman found a 44-inch machete under a drug dealer’s bed but had no power to confiscate it.
Had the Conservative government banned the sale of machetes and so-called zombie-style knives—a long and often extravagant-looking bladed instrument made popular by zombie films—Sadiq might still be alive.
Suella Braverman is the fifth consecutive Conservative Home Secretary to pledge to ban the sale of these weapons, but the current law has another loophole, which gangs have exploited to maximum effect. Annex A of the statutory guidance of the 2019 Act states that it is an offense to manufacture, sell, or hire any weapon with “images or words (whether on the blade or handle) that suggest that it is to be used for the purpose of violence.” Manufacturers are aware of this and are adapting to the market. They now sell these weapons online without any markings or pictures.
In an attempt to strengthen the law, Conservative MP Chris Philips, the policing minister, wants to give the police the power to confiscate and destroy weapons and impose harsher prison sentences for those who buy and sell machetes and zombie knives. According to the latest proposal, owning such a weapon at home could mean up to two years in prison.
The government has had seven years to deal with this issue and has been in power for 13 years. Why the sudden urgency? Perhaps because an election looms, Labour is ahead in the polls; and—in addition to immigration and rising living costs—voters are concerned about law and order. But for Conservatives, it may be too little, too late. Both major parties are now trying to outdo one another on criminal justice matters. Opposition leader Keir Starmer claims that Labour is the real party of law and order.
No matter who wins the next election, those in power must tackle knife crime as soon as possible. This can be achieved by increasing police powers to stop and search suspected criminals in high-crime areas and by strengthening penalties, such as extending prison sentences for repeat offenders possessing such weapons. Since 2016, 173 young people have been murdered with knives. It’s time to get serious.
Photo by PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images
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