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Missing the Point?

Knife ban misses the pointThe media frenzy generated by the present (and in our view) inappropriate national 'Knife Amnesty' has prompted counterbalance to comment on one of its less frequent, national issues.

We were surprised to see a police advertisement in the local paper, saying that it was a illegal to 'possess' a knife in the street. Surely this wording must be wrong we thought, otherwise it would mean no-one could buy a bread-knife and bring it home in their shopping bag.

We might have understood better if the advert has said it was illegal to use a knife threateningly, (or even to carry one in the street with its cutting edge exposed); but how, we wondered, could it be unlawful, simply to possess one, when they are readily available in everyone's kitchen drawer; when they are feely available in shops, and especially if the knife was contained in, say, a blister-pack?

So off we trotted to the local cop shop to enquire what the law actually said. The desk officer wasn't sure of the specifics, but help soon appeared in the form of a more senior colleague, who confirmed that the offence was literally to be in possession of a knife with a blade more than 3 inches long or indeed any sharp pointed object. (Which also makes a potential criminal of any lady carrying one of those long-lasting little metal nail files).

If that was the case, we asked, how could we get a bread-knife home in a shopping bag?

To this, the reply was (predictably) well, we wouldn't arrest you for that, it's up to the officer on the ground to decide.

To our relief, we were also advised, after our further enquiry, that possession of the battered old hunting style knife that lives in our fishing box and is mostly used to lever worms out of the soil when counterbalance sometimes goes fishing to contemplate the deeper issues of life, would also not be considered unlawful, provided it was in the box and we could show we were going fishing.

Relieved, but remaining confused by the logic underlying the answer, we pressed a little harder, and asked - if it was up to individual officers to decide what was, and was not, within this law, how could knife owners know whether something the were about to do would actually be an offence?

Answer came there none, but a tetchy scowl started to appear, and we withdrew to find out more, and to consult the legislation.

To us, the answers we were given seemed to be heading into the same arena as the drink-driving laws, - where it is not actually unlawful to drink and drive, provided you stay within a pre-determined blood-alcohol limit (which is impossible for you to judge). So the only way to know you are within the law is not to drink and drive at all.  Likewise, subject to our ability to satisfy the police that we possess it for a justifiable reason, we are not currently prevented from possessing a knife in the street, but to be certain we stay within the law, we really ought not to have a knife in a public place at all, and we should hand all our knives into the Amnesty bin.

The need to research what is going on here became more pressing.

What unravelled from our research has showed this knife 'Amnesty' to be the tip of a national public-relations initiative leading eventually to a probable ban on the owning of knives except for food preparation purposes in a kitchen, and to license the sale of all knives so retailers will have to apply for a permit to sell them.

This line of thinking is clearly well intentioned, but dangerously wrong for the future of our society.

For a start, the logic simply doesn't work. Just as the draconian laws that removed guns from responsible users have not reduced gun crime, the removal of inanimate objects such as knives from the sort of responsible people who will deposit them in amnesty bins will do nothing to prevent  their use by criminals. It is entirely the wrong approach.

It also sends the wrong message to responsible people and thus diminishes respect for the law and its enforcement. It reduces the opportunity for young people to learn respect for, and the responsible use of, knives and other potentially lethal tools. It begins a dangerous pathway to a process where you can break the law without even knowing you have done so, and it moves us further from personal responsibility, and ever closer to the culture of reliance and dependency so beloved of politicians.

You don't think so?, then test your view further with a few facts.

First the term. 'Amnesty' is a curious term for the present activity. In our dictionary is either an official pardon for people convicted of political offences, or an official undertaking to take no action against specified offences during a fixed period. Given that it is not an offence to own a knife, what "specified offence" can this current 'Amnesty' disregard during the month of June?

No, its real purpose is propaganda - to induce the perception in the mind of the casual reader that ownership of a knife is at least wrong, (if not unlawful) - when clearly it is not. Thus begins the spin to soften us up for a complete ban.

Second, consider the legislation. Initially there was The Prevention of Crime Act 1953, which prohibited the carrying of any offensive weapon in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. A public place includes private premises to which the public have access. An offensive weapon is defined as any article made or adapted for use for causing injury to the person, or intended by the person for such use.

So far so good, because under this law, an ordinary knife probably isn't an offensive weapon unless it's been modified, or is actively being used offensively. This legislation aims at the intent of the owner and the nature of the use, not the item itself.

Then came The Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959, which prohibited the manufacture, sale, hire or offer for sale or hire, and importation of flick knives and gravity knives. Here, with undoubtedly the best of intentions, we start to go wrong, blaming the knife rather than the user and the nature of use.

But it is chiefly the 1988 Criminal Justice Act that has spawned the mess we have wandered into. In summary, it created the offence of having an article with a blade or point in a public place without good reason or lawful excuse. (An exemption applied to folding pocket knives with a blade of less than three inches).

Note here that the term 'article' has replaced the previous term 'offensive weapon'.

This Act also created a similar offence of having a knife or article with blade on school premises, and prohibited the manufacture, sale, hire, offer for sale or hire of a range of weapons specified in the 'Criminal Justice Act (Offensive Weapons) Order 1988'. (These are mainly items such as knuckledusters, handclaws and certain martial arts equipment, or those which can be easily concealed, including swordsticks).

Clearly this was well intentioned, but it introduces a new concept and two logic errors. The new concept is that by including an item on a list, it automatically becomes an offensive weapon, irrespective of the nature of its use, or the context of its deployment.

The two errors of logic are first, that the item, rather than the offender, ought to be removed to make things safer, and second, you cannot know with certainty in advance what is a good reason or lawful excuse - so in theory, holding a pointed article such as a pencil in the street could now be an offence.

Now, before you think we are getting carried away here gentle reader, remember the removal of Walter Wolfgang who shouted out at the Labour Party conference, and his subsequent arrest under anti-terrorism legislation. This was something that did not threaten national security nor warrant arrest. It saw badly framed law used for politically expedient purposes, and that is a far more dangerous path for society than the possession of any knife.

Continuing out history of knife legislation, in 1996 the Offensive Weapons Act amended the 1988 Act to prohibit the sale of knives and certain articles with a blade or point to persons under the age of 16.

Then in 1997 the Knives Act, created offences relating to the unlawful marketing of knives as being suitable for combat, or in ways likely to stimulate or encourage violent behaviour. It also extended the power to stop and search in anticipation of violence.

More recently, in 2005, the Violent Crime Reduction Bill proposes to raise the minimum age at which a young person can buy knife from 16 to 18.

Moving forward to today, the present 'Amnesty' is a joint initiative between the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). This is another dangerous path.

Whilst it is clearly a good idea for such officers to discuss matters of mutual interest within the confines of a professional association, our police forces are, and should remain, accountable locally. An association of officers has no democratic legitimacy or locus to devise and enter into any national scheme with Government.

This step is the toddling edge of the politicisation and centralised control of our police force that represents a very dangerous direction for a free society. Mixing political spin and policing is a prelude to the sort of behaviour associated with totalitarian regimes.

So perhaps we should look a bit more closely at what is going on here.

The foundation of the 'Amnesty' is the Criminal Justice Act of 1988 which creates the offence of having article with blade or point in public place. Its text actually says:

139.—(1) Subject to subsections (4) and (5) below, any person who has an article to which this section applies with him in a public place shall be guilty of an offence.

(2) Subject to subsection (3) below, this section applies to any article which has a blade or is sharply pointed except a folding pocket-knife.

(3) This section applies to a folding pocket-knife if the cutting edge of its blade exceeds 3 inches.

(4) It shall be a defence for a person charged with an offence under this section to prove that he had good reason or lawful authority for having the article with him in a public place.

(5) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (4) above, it shall be a defence for a person charged with an offence under this section to prove that he had the article with him— (a) for use at work; (b) for religious reasons; or (c) as part of any national costume.

(6) A person guilty of an offence under subsection (1) above shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.

(7) In this section "public place" includes any place to which at the material time the public have or are permitted access, whether on payment or otherwise.

(8) This section shall not have effect in relation to anything done before it comes into force.

The effect here is to reverse the principles of natural justice so long espoused in our country where you are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Subsection 4 makes the possession of a knife or sharp object in a public place an offence, and it places the burden of proof on you to show that your reason for having it is sufficiently good.

So by simply 'possessing' a knife in a public place, we are all guilty of an offence and liable to arrest until we can prove otherwise, and this is only the tip of a legal iceberg bearing down on us, as we shall see.

The impetus for this 'Amnesty' comes from an earlier initiative in Scotland, which  was reported by 'Scotland Today' They said that during 'Operation Blade' Strathclyde Police urged people to bin a knife, and many did so. Unfortunately it did not really affect the crime rate. That initiative was followed by new stop and search powers for the police. According to their report, the statistics show that this did not work either.

The problem here (as anyone who stops to think about it will realise) is that you cannot defeat knife crime by amnesties and greater police power. It is part a cultural problem, and until the question of why young men in particular feel the need to be armed when they go out is tackled, then banning guns, knives, glass, nail-files, pencils or whatever, is entirely the wrong approach. You might as well have an 'Amnesty' for beer-glasses or bottles.

But whilst in England, we play catch-up, Scotland is forging ahead. The Scottish Executive recently issued a consultation paper to examine what more could be done to prevent knives (which they refer to as "these potentially dangerous weapons") getting into what they call "the wrong hands."

Their conclusions go on to say they have no wish to place further restrictions on the sale of knives with a legitimate domestic use, but they propose to restrict the sale of knives with no clear domestic purpose. They define a 'non-domestic' knife as being: "a knife which has a blade or sharp point, and which is not designed only for domestic use, or only for use in the processing, preparation or consumption of food."

This, of course, introduces a new object to our law, 'the non-domestic knife'

They plan to restrict the availability of non-domestic knives by regulating their sale. Scottish Ministers could require any retailer wishing to sell non-domestic knives to have a licence. Retailers would apply to the relevant local authority for a licence - and could be required to meet certain conditions before their application was approved. It would then be a criminal offence for a person to sell a non-domestic knife without a licence.

They also want to accompany licensing the sale of knives with the creation of an offence to purchase a non-domestic knife from an unlicensed retailer.

Yes, really.

In answer to a recent Parliamentary question in the House of Commons, Secretary of State for the Home Office, Hazel Blears, said: "We are introducing new measures on gun and knife crime in the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, currently before Parliament, which will raise the age for purchasing a knife to 18, ban the sale, manufacture and import of realistic imitation firearms, give head teachers powers to search pupils for weapons, and introduce a new offence of using another person to hide or carry a gun or knife."

She didn't mention the moves being made in Scotland but given the direction of her travel, they are no doubt on her agenda.

She went on to say that "the number of offences involving knives is not separated out in the recorded crime statistics. Therefore no information is available on knife offences causing serious or minor injury. The Homicide Index holds details on the number of homicides where the apparent method of killing was the use of a sharp instrument" (This would include bottles, glasses etc). "The available information from 1995 to 2003–04 is: "

Date Homicides Date Homicides
1995  243  1999–2000 213
1996  197          2000–01  214
1997  200 2001–02 261
1997–98 202 2002–03 268
1998–99  202  2003–04 237

These deaths by a 'sharp instrument' don't seem to show a sufficiently marked upward trend to justify the legislative escalation posed by the present UK government, or Scotland's plans to outlaw non-domestic knives.

So apart from creating a climate of fear, a culture of dependency, and the perception that Government is 'doing something' we may conclude that this so-called 'Amnesty' is little more than a damaging PR stunt.

It signals to responsible people that possession of a household knife or a nail-file is just as serious as carrying a so-called offensive weapon.

But its chief aim seems to be a subliminal softening-up of the national conscience to increase the chances of our accepting the idea of a ban on all except 'non-domestic' knives.

When they come for you, don't say you weren't warned.

Dated:  4 June 2006

Update 6 June 2006 
An early reader has spotted the exemption "for religious reasons" and wonders whether a Druid claiming to be on his way to a planned ritual human sacrifice might be exempt from prosecution if stopped whilst in in posession of a large knife in a public place.


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