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News / Nation & World

Rise in U.K. knife attacks leads to a crackdown and stokes public anxiety

By Associated Press
Published: May 12, 2024, 3:07pm

LONDON — A familiar horror reached Pooja Kanda first on social media: There had been a sword attack in London. And then Kanda, who was home alone at the time, saw a detail she dreaded and knew all too well.

A man with a sword had killed a 14-year-old boy who was walking to school. Two years ago, her 16-year-old son, Ronan, was killed by two sword-wielding schoolmates while walking to a neighbor’s to borrow a PlayStation controller.

“It took me back,” Kanda, who lives near Birmingham, said about Daniel Anjorin’s April 30 killing in an attack in London’s Hainault district that also wounded four people. “It’s painful to see that this has happened all over again.”

In parts of the world that ban or strictly regulate gun ownership, including Britain and much of the rest of Europe, knives and other types of blades are often the weapons of choice used in crimes. Many end up in the hands of children, as they can be cheap and easy to get.

Although the number of fatal stabbings has mostly held steady in England and Wales over the past 10 years, headline-grabbing attacks and an overall rise in knife crime have stoked anxieties and led to calls for the government to do more.

“Knife-enabled” crime — in which knives were used to commit crimes or someone was caught illegally possessing one — rose 7% in England and Wales last year,” the government said last month, noting some localities were not included. In London, such crimes jumped 20%. The other two U.K. countries, Scotland and Northern Ireland, keep their own statistics.

With knives so readily available, there’s only so much that can be done. Of the 244 fatal stabbings in England and Wales in the 12 months ending with March 2023 — the most recent figures available — 101 were committed with kitchen knives, far surpassing any other type of blade, according to the Office of National Statistics.

But the uptick in knife crime and a steady drumbeat of shocking attacks, including those that killed Ronan Kanda, Daniel Anjorin and three people in Nottingham last year, has pushed the issue to the forefront.

“It seems like every day something like this is reported in the press,” Sanjoy O’Malley-Kumar, whose 19-year-old daughter Grace O’Malley-Kumar was among the Nottingham victims, said on “Good Morning Britain” after the recent attack in London.

In last week’s local elections, candidates debated policies such as stop-and-search.

Even movie star Idris Elba has weighed in.

“I can pick up a phone right now, type in knives and I’ll get inundated with adverts for them,” the London-born star of “The Wire” and “Luther” said during a protest in January.

Guns are heavily restricted in the U.K. and there’s not much debate about it. That’s partly because the 1996 massacre of 16 elementary students in Dunblane, Scotland, led to a ban on owning handguns. Firearms used for hunting are tightly regulated.

Restricting knives is trickier, but the government is trying. It’s already illegal to sell a knife to someone younger than 18 or to carry one in public without a good reason, such as for work or religious purposes.

And certain types of blades are already illegal, including switchblades and so-called zombie knives, which come in various sizes, have cutting and serrated edges, and feature text or images suggesting they should be used to commit violence, according to the 2016 law banning them.

A new law will take effect in September banning the sale of machetes and closing a loophole that companies have exploited to get around the zombie knife ban. It remains to be seen whether the new law will have much effect, though, as machetes accounted for only 14 of of the 244 stabbing deaths in the 12 months that ended in March 2023 and zombie-style knives accounted for seven.

“Knives are harder than guns to regulate and there are already large numbers out there even if they were ‘banned,’” said Tony Travers, a professor of government at the London School of Economics.

History and statistics point to an enduring problem in a country where memories are still fresh of the 2017 vehicle-and-knife attack in London that killed eight people and injured almost 50. Three extremists inspired by the Islamic State group drove into pedestrians on London Bridge and then stabbed people in nearby Borough Market.

Homicides committed with sharp instruments, including knives, machetes and swords, have exceeded 200 since the 12 months that ended with March 2016, when 210 people were killed that way, according to the Office of National Statistics. They reached a record high of 282 two years later and have held roughly steady ever since, dipping slightly during the pandemic lockdown.

Whereas guns are used in about 80% of American homicides, according to U.S. government figures, blades are used in most London killings. But brazen and seemingly random attacks like the one this month in east London are unusual.

“Sporadic acts of violence are a bit like shark attacks. They’re actually very, very rare, but they get lots of traction,” said Iain Overton, executive director of Action on Armed Violence, a London-based charity. “I don’t think randomized public homicides are particularly commonplace in the U.K.”

The frequency of slashing attacks has amplified a sense of dread and distrust in cities, where most happen.

The Bristol Post published a timeline in March of more than a dozen knife incidents in that coastal city since the start of the year. It included reports on the stabbing deaths of three teenagers over an 18-day period and another teen who was stabbed to death in February.

Meanwhile, a teenage girl in Wales was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder after stabbing a student and two teachers at a secondary school April 24, police said. That was just six days before Daniel Anjorin was killed.

In Ronan Kanda’s killing, one of his attackers, Prabjeet Veadhesa, then 16, bought a sword online and picked it up at the post office. He brought his mother’s ID to pass the post office’s security check, but no one asked to see it, according to trial testimony. Adding to the tragedy, Ronan was killed in a case of mistaken identity, police said.

The details of stabbing attacks differ, but Pooja Kanda said she sees similarities — chiefly the emotional what-comes-next: bewildered, shattered families, anger that such a thing could happen to a child or anyone again.

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She petitioned the government to ban the sale of swords with exceptions and submitted 10,000 signatures, but was rejected.

The U.K. Home Office said in a statement that crimes with straight swords are rare and were not raised by the police as a specific concern, so officials focused instead on zombie-style knives and machetes in the law that takes effect in September. The Home Office said curved swords were banned in 2008.

Kanda, a working single mother, said it would be wrong to blame all knife attacks on poverty. Rather, there are many reasons they happen.

“The law is very weak. People are not scared to go to jail,” she said. “There’s a massive ego, a culture around it. To show how big a man you are. Kids have got this wrong idea that this is cool to do this.”

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