Knife Crime - Home Affairs Committee Contents

4 Causes

In this chapter we explore why young people carry knives and factors influencing violent behaviour.


57. "Protection" tends to be the number one motive given for illegal knife-carrying. A commonly cited figure, taken from the Home Office's 2006 Offending Crime and Justice Survey, is that 85% of young people carry to protect themselves. Other studies have discovered similar findings. Behind legitimate use, the most common reason given by knife-carriers to the 2008 MORI Youth Survey was "to protect myself". In Why Carry a Weapon?, all focus groups bar one stated that "protection" was the primary reason why young people their age chose to carry a knife.[80] Young people claim they need a weapon to protect themselves because they feel unsafe.

58. Ian Levy, the father of stab victim Robert Levy, pointed out the weakness of these surveys: "almost all young people you ask, will say they carry it for protection, because that is the simplest and easiest reason to justify the possession of a knife."[81] We accept that we should treat the figures with caution, and that fear does not excuse weapon-carrying, but it was clear from other evidence that a perceived need for protection does play a role in the decision of many young people to carry knives.

59. This fear tends to be exacerbated by a presumption that others will be carrying knives. One witness who gave evidence anonymously with The Prince's Trust and who used to carry a knife compared the situation to an arms race:

    It was not like I was carrying it because I was going to go and stab someone, it was just other people were doing it so it was just like an arms race. I think in a way—and this is a personal opinion—to make it equal, governments have nuclear weapons because someone else has got nuclear weapons. It is to defend ourselves. No-one wants to use it but it is just there as a deterrent.[82]

60. Some witnesses pointed to the issue of "territoriality" as a key factor in why some young people felt the need for protection. A recent study published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that, for 13-17 year old boys and to a lesser extent men in their twenties in particular, identity has become strongly linked to neighbourhood, which often expresses itself through violent conflict with groups from other neighbourhoods. A young offender from London interviewed for Why Carry a Weapon? described how this affected his decision to carry a knife:

    In my area, I'm going to see my girl and she lives in Palmers Green, I have to go through Wood Green to get to Palmers Green, and I've got beef with Wood Green, man. I get shot, or like if they don't have a strap on them then they chasing up trying to move me up. I'd rather have a shank and flick it out and start wetting man than get stabbed myself. Cos if you have a shank, and they haven't, they're gonna back off.[83]

61. Even those who do not form part of a group linked to a territory may find themselves at risk of attack when crossing into another area.[84] An anonymous witness giving evidence with The Prince's Trust explained that the majority of young people in his community in Basildon would only carry a knife if they were going into an unfamiliar area and another giving evidence with 11 MILLION told us that he was at risk of mugging or assault if venturing onto another estate in Merseyside.[85]

62. The perceived need for protection is linked to experiences of victimisation: in the 2008 MORI Youth Survey, 27% of young people who claimed to have been a victim of crime reported carrying a knife at least once or twice afterwards, compared to 20% of non-victims; 7% reported carrying a knife three or four times compared to 4% of non-victims.[86] Dr Iain Brennan told us that British Crime Survey data also indicated that being a victim of violence in the previous 12 months increased the likelihood of carrying a weapon.[87]

63. There is also a relationship with lack of trust in 'natural protectors', such as the police, as explained in Why Carry a Weapon?:

    It was unanimous from all 18 participants that the police and their parents could not protect them, but a knife in some circumstances could … The police are saying that they keep you safe, but the police ain't gonna protect you 24-7, 52-weeks. Obviously you've got to have something to protect you … Several boys mentioned that rather than their parents protecting them, it was their job to protect their mothers and younger siblings.[88]

Frances Crook, of the Howard League for Penal Reform, told us that the research had also found that parents were not responding in a helpful way to their children's safety concerns.[89] We return to this point in paragraph 128.

Influence of media coverage

64. We heard concerns that intense media coverage of fatal stabbings, particularly over the summer of 2008, may have led to an increase in young people carrying weapons because it fuelled the perception that everyone else was carrying them. The crime reduction charity Nacro, for example, argued:

    The suggestion that it is in any sense the norm to carry weapons is likely to increase the number of young people who do so, simply because they fear attack and wish to have the means to protect and defend themselves.[90]

Mothers Against Murder and Aggression Wales explained that when they ask young people "What do you think is the biggest cause of knife crime and why do you think young people carry a knife":

    More and more the answer is 'the media'. On discussing this issue the children tell us that they see so much in the news about knife crime and the way it is portrayed it gives a message that all teenagers are thugs and are armed. They know this is not true about the areas of Wales that they live in but it still frightens them. Almost everyone who has carried a knife or knows someone who does feels they have to protect themselves because everyone else is doing the same [91]

Several other organisations, including SmartJustice and World of Hope, expressed concern about the impact of the media's negative portrayal of young people:

    The attitude of the media, who focus very negatively on young people also contributes to the problem. Screaming headlines about a 'war on young thugs' contributes to the concept that for some young people there is a war being waged against them and they should be fighting back.[92]

65. However, other witnesses cited positive aspects of some media coverage. Mrs Oakes-Odger, who has campaigned against knives since the fatal stabbing of her son Westley Odger, described how the media had helped to raise the issue of knife crime up the political agenda, as well as being a conduit for a Home Office campaign to engage community organisations last summer.[93] Not all of the media coverage has been sensationalist. The Daily Mirror, for example, has given practical advice to parents on how to talk to their children about knives.[94] Valerie Okoampah and Kane Pierce, pupils at Gladesmore Community School in Tottenham, London who are part of a student-led anti-knife campaign called Value Life, explained how Choice FM radio station had helped spread their message by covering their campaign and providing DJs for their rallies and marches.[95]

66. The Royal Armouries Museum, in their literature review of evidence on knife crime, argue that "changing the culture of newspaper reporting is obviously easier said than done but responsible reporting could be facilitated by issuing good quality press briefings about knife-carrying and knife crime that feature reliable research and statistics." [96] A 2007 report by the Centre for Criminal Justice Studies gave the example of a Metropolitan Police statement to publicise the national knife amnesty which said that "52 teenagers are victims of knife crime EVERY week in London": members of the public could reasonably have assumed this referred to actual stabbings, whereas it includes a range of incidents such as where a knife has been used to threaten.[97] The Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir Michael Scholar, had cause to complain to the Home Office in December 2008 about the premature release of data related to the Tackling Knives Action Programme.[98] In the past we have urged the Government to provide full and accurate crime information.[99]

67. The vast majority of young people who carry knives say that they or their peers carry knives to protect themselves: according to one survey this reason is given by as many as 85% of knife-carriers. While for some questioned this may be an easy excuse to justify their actions, young people in deprived communities undoubtedly feel unsafe. In part this is down to the risk of being attacked simply for living in a different neighbourhood or "territory". There is also a strong link between past victimisation and knife-carrying. Many do not trust their "natural protectors", such as their parents and the police, to keep them safe. A perception that everyone else is carrying a knife fuels a vicious circle, compared by one witness to an "arms race". Solutions to knife-carrying should therefore focus in part on helping young people to feel safer.

68. Sensationalist media coverage of stabbings has contributed to this "arms race". Negative media portrayals of young people as "feral youths", when the vast majority are law-abiding, can add to a sense of being under attack. While we urge media organisations to report knife crime in a responsible manner, we also recognise the positive role that the media can play in mobilising communities against knife crime and acting as a conduit for anti-knife information and campaigns. Furthermore, responsible reporting is assisted by the provision of quality information; therefore we repeat our past recommendation for the provision of full and accurate crime data.


69. Another potential impact of heavy media coverage of knife offences is that it can serve to glamorise knife crime. We heard evidence suggesting that some young people carry knives "out of respect, maybe trying to make a name for themselves on the street": in order to gain 'respect', they will use a weapon to threaten and intimidate people."[100] 4% of respondents to the 2008 Youth Survey said they carried a knife "for street cred" and 5% "to scare others".[101] Shaun Bailey, who runs the youth charity MyGeneration, told us:

    When you are young … you know that carrying a knife is wrong, you know it is dangerous and you know that stabbing people is wrong, but it is not as wrong as not looking cool.[102]

Professor Ellis Cashmore, of Staffordshire University, has argued that knives have assumed a new status as "bling" for those who cannot afford gold chains and fast cars. As they cannot display them walking down the street, young people are posting images of themselves posing with knives on the internet.[103]

70. Peer pressure is also a factor: 4% of young people who reported carrying a knife told MORI they did so because "my friends carry one".[104] Deputy Assistant Commissioner Alf Hitchcock told us:

    In some cases we do have young people saying to us that one of the key reasons they will carry knives is because in order to be within those peer groups, in order to be within those gangs, they have to have the kudos of carrying that knife as part of their membership.[105]

71. Whether through a desire to gain status, or through fear of repercussions, we also heard evidence that young children are carrying weapons on behalf of older teenagers and adults. According to Frances Crook:

    We have some recent evidence … that the older young men involved in perhaps leading groups or leading gangs and carrying knives are sometimes quite savvy about this, quite sophisticated, and in order to avoid carrying a knife and the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence if they are stopped by the police—because they do get stopped quite a lot—they are using very young children to carry for them. We have heard that they will use a seven or eight year old like a "golf caddy", this was the expression used, to carry their knives for them and then if they need it the kid will hand it to them.[106]

This was supported by the experiences of witnesses living in areas where knife crime is a problem:

    I know from experience that people try and offload weapons on to people younger than them. For example, if I tried to offload a knife on to someone who was 11 because I had used that knife. People do try to switch weapons to try and hide them and people do end up with new weapons and pass them around …

    They use younger kids as bait really if they are getting chased by the police or something and they go to a younger child and say, "Take this knife". There is more chance of a younger child taking the knife and walking around thinking it is cool or something.[107]

Under the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006, individuals who use another individual to mind a weapon for them can receive a maximum four year custodial sentence but we heard no evidence to suggest this has had much of an impact.

72. A smaller number of knife-carriers say they carry knives to gain 'respect' or street credibility, or because of peer pressure. Measures to tackle weapon-carrying should therefore also focus on resolving the reasons why young people seek "respect", including the appeal of violent street culture, and building confidence to resist peer pressure.

73. We were also concerned about evidence that knife offenders are using young children as "caddies" to carry weapons for them. This is now a criminal offence under the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 attracting a maximum sentence of four years. We would like the Home Office to state the number of prosecutions made under this legislation and recommend that such prosecutions are actively pursued by the police.

Availability of weapons

74. One of the major reasons why knives constitute a high proportion of weapon-related crime is their ease of availability, compared with guns for example. Almost everyone will have access to a kitchen knife. In addition, we heard from the Police Federation and the Youth Justice Board that penknives, domestic knives, specialist knives (such as hunting knives) and prohibited knives listed in the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Offensive Weapons) Order 1988 are easily obtainable in shops, from catalogues and on the internet.[108] It is illegal under the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 to sell a knife to someone under the age of 18; however young people interviewed by 11 MILLION said that those who are under 18 but appear older are rarely challenged if they attempt to buy a knife in a shop.[109]

75. In addition to carrying for protection or to enhance status, we know from crime statistics and self-report surveys that many carry knives with intent to use them. In the 2008 MORI Youth Survey, 3% of young people who had carried a knife had done so in order to threaten others and 3% to injure someone (and bearing in mind that 8% "didn't want to answer" and 10% were "not stated" these figures could well be higher).[110] An anonymous witness giving evidence with The Prince's Trust explained why young people may be attracted to illegal combat knives:

    The majority of the knives I have been involved with are combat knives because obviously it does more damage to the young person or an adult, because if you have a standard kitchen knife, it just goes in and you pull it out and it does not rip or tear them on the inside. With a combat knife you have got a rigid blade on the other side of the blade so it does more damage, so that way you know for effect the young person or the adult is not going to get up or retaliate as much. If it is a normal stab knife, it is in out and it is not doing anything, so you have to stab them several times to do quite a bit of damage.[111]

76. While there is clearly some value in cracking down on illegal sales, Dr Marian Fitzgerald cautioned that this may not solve the problem in the long-term:

    Knives may currently be the weapon of choice for those prepared to engage in these types of violent activity but this may simply be a function of their relative availability; and the possibility must also be borne in mind that the same individuals will simply resort to the use of other weapons if a knife is not to hand.[112]

This point was supported by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Hitchcock:

    The knife is the weapon of choice in such a large number of offences because it is easily available and readily available in every home, but the issue to be addressed is violence in the round … The issue is how you deal with knife violence within the range of violent crimes and then the knife within that context becomes part of a broader violence strategy.[113]

77. A huge factor in the decision to carry a knife or use it in an offence is its easy availability. This is clearly particularly true of kitchen knives, but we heard that it is also possible to purchase illegal knives from a number of sources and that under-18s are often able to purchase knives in shops, despite changes in the law. While we believe there is value in exploring ways of decreasing supply, particularly as a solution for those who carry knives without intention to use them, this is unlikely to reduce violent offending significantly. Those intent on committing violence will find other means. Therefore, in order to address the growing trend towards serious violence in a minority of young people, it is important to address its underlying causes.

Causes of violent behaviour

Links to social deprivation

78. We therefore looked at some of the reasons why young people commit violence. Our evidence located the causes of knife crime in social exclusion, particularly an unstable family structure and a lack of self-worth. The crime reduction charity Nacro argued:

    They are likely to come from dysfunctional families, to have been excluded from school, to be without qualifications or prospects of decent employment.

They located the problem in:

    a shortage of satisfactory youth facilities, lack of funding, not enough educational activities to help young people psychologically build their confidence, not enough support work with parents.[114]

Highway Youth Club concluded:

    Without any self-worth their life and any other person's life for that matter eventually means nothing to them, and so if they fall into a dispute, they do not care about what that means for their self or the victim.[115]

79. The National Youth Agency summarised the "critical risk factors" identified in research from the UK and US which can combine to heighten the risk of a young person becoming involved in street violence:

  • Detachment from families;
  • Absence of or poor/inconsistent parental support;
  • Weak bonds with school and other institutions;
  • High levels of association with delinquent peers;
  • High levels of hopelessness: having negative expectations about oneself and one's future life;
  • Propensity to be impulsive and engage in risk taking behaviour; and
  • Living in neighbourhoods where positive opportunities are few, where social controls are weak, and where gangs are already embedded.[116]


80. There is a strong links between experiencing or witnessing violence at a young age and committing violence. Professor Dr Christian Pfeiffer told our colleagues on the Justice Committee that 8% of those beaten in childhood and 17% of those who are beaten in childhood and youth go on to commit repeat violent offences, as opposed to 2.1% of those who are not beaten: "the creation of violence comes from the family".[117]

81. Some of the knife attacks we have read about were shocking in terms of the minor nature of the grievance that prompted them. Young offenders tend to be impulsive and have little understanding of the impact of their actions on others.[118] This can be particularly true of children from deprived backgrounds. The organisation Kids Company draws on scientific evidence to highlight the impact of chronic neglect on these children:

    The most significant influence on the development of the brain is the quality of early relationships. Such early experiences can influence whether certain genes are expressed or not. For example, some individuals carry a gene which is associated with abnormal behaviour in infancy and poor control of aggression in adolescence but only if their caregivers are insensitive to their developing needs. However, if the same infants are looked after by a sensitive attachment figure they show no early behavioural problems and are able to control their aggression in their teens …

    Neglect and lack of love on their own can devastate more than abuse, as they have a long-term impact on the brain's development and the individual's ability to manage or modulate emotion (i.e. to self-regulate) …

    When the supra-orbital area in the neo-cortex is under-developed the child cannot empathise … In addition, neglect and/or early traumatic experiences of abuse lead to a failure in modulating negative and positive emotions so that the more aggressive impulsive emotions come to the forefront and are likely to be expressed.[119]

Brain science can also help to explain why some individuals who have experienced trauma commit extreme violence at very small provocation.

82. However, many young people from deprived backgrounds do not commit violence and conversely we heard examples of young people from strong family backgrounds who do. Kirk Dawes, of the West Midlands Mediation and Transformation Service, told us about one young man who, despite coming from a strong family, being in full-time education and attending church every Sunday, had become heavily involved in gangs after being attracted to the "glamour".[120] The organisation SmartJustice, which highlighted "an all pervading, often negative youth culture with an emphasis on status symbols, glorification of violence and the central role of 'respect'", cited comments by the barrister Courtney Griffiths who had recently defended a group of youths, all of whom came from stable homes and were at university or college but had stabbed another boy to death in a row caused by perceived disrespect.[121]

Exposure to violent entertainment media

83. We were concerned about the impact of watching violent films and video games on young people's propensity to commit violence, particularly in light of the media furore aroused by the graphic depiction of knife violence in the most recent Batman film.[122] We took evidence from a forensic psychologist, Professor Kevin Browne, who told us that his review of evidence in the English scientific literature, published in the Lancet in 2005 confirmed that there are "well-established short-term effects of children or teenagers watching violent video films, DVDs or playing violent computer games and then behaving aggressively in the hours and weeks afterwards":

    The effect size has been measured and the effect size is equivalent to the effects of using condoms to prevent HIV or the effect size of putting fluoride in the water to reduce tooth decay. It is an effect size that has considerable public health consequences. The scientific lobby is very clear that media violence has effects on children and adolescents in the short term.[123]

84. While there has been less research into long-term effects and the impact on vulnerable groups, Professor Browne described a Home Office-funded study he undertook in the late 1990s, which found evidence that young offenders reacted differently from non-offenders to media violence. Crucially, the study found:

    a distinct difference between children who grew up in a violent environment and children who did not. Children who grew up in a violent environment and who witnessed real violence in their community or family were very prone to copy and imitate what they see on the screen, but this is not direct imitation … A child or a teenager that copies something from a movie will put it within their own behavioural repertoire.[124]

85. Professor Browne told us that he believed there is a link between watching films and video games and weapons:

    We know that children and young people are influenced by heroes in the film and less so by villains. If you live on a diet of violent movies that hit first and ask questions afterwards, which fits in with a violent offender's frame of mind, then you are likely to copy what that violent hero does … if they come from a violent family background.[125]

He gave an example of a young offender who copied scenes from Freddy Kruger by adding razor blades to the fingers of a gardening glove, which was later found in the back of a car covered in bloodstains.[126]

86. Professor Browne emphasised that media violence is not the only or the most powerful influence on individuals prone to violence, but that it is estimated it contributes around 10% of any person's predisposition to be violent. He argued that we could reduce violence by 10% by being more responsible in the way that we portray violence.[127]

87. Individuals born into social deprivation are more likely to commit violence. Key risk factors for becoming involved in street violence include coming from a dysfunctional family with poor parental support, low self-worth, poor school attendance and living in an area where aspirations are low and there are few employment opportunities. Young people who have witnessed or experienced violence as a child are also far more prone to commit violence. We were shocked by the rapid manner in which violence can escalate between young people from a seemingly minor grievance. Extreme parental neglect halts the development of faculties that enable the majority of people to regulate their aggression. Solutions should therefore focus on dealing with dysfunctional and violent families and providing opportunities for young people to develop self-worth. However, it is important to recognise that not all young people who come from a deprived background are violent and that young people from stable backgrounds can also be violent.

88. Evidence to our inquiry supported our view that violent DVDs and video games exert a negative influence on those who watch and play them. Watching or playing such media contributes around 10% of any person's predisposition to be violent. Of particular concern is their influence on individuals who are already predisposed to violence because they grew up in a violent environment.

80   Home Office, Young people and crime: findings from the 2006 Offending Crime and Justice Survey, July 2008, p 14; Youth Justice Board, MORI Youth Survey 2008: Young people in mainstream education, February 2009, p 49; Nicola Marfleet, Why Carry a Weapon? A Study of Knife Crime Amongst 15-17-Year Old Males in London (London: Howard League for Penal Reform, 2008), pp 60-1 Back

81   Q 231 Back

82   Q 272 Back

83   Nicola Marfleet, Why Carry a Weapon? A Study of Knife Crime Amongst 15-17-Year Old Males in London (London: Howard League for Penal Reform, 2008), pp 77-8 Back

84   Keith Kintrea, Jon Bannister, Jon Pickering, Maggie Reid and Naofumi Suzuki, Young people and territoriality in British cities (York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation), October 2008 Back

85   Qq 273, 370 Back

86   Youth Justice Board, MORI Youth Survey 2008: Young people in mainstream education, February 2009, p 50 Back

87   Annex D [Bristol seminar notes] Back

88   Nicola Marfleet, Why Carry a Weapon? A Study of Knife Crime Amongst 15-17-Year Old Males in London (London: Howard League for Penal Reform, 2008), pp 61, 67 Back

89   Q 295 Back

90   Ev 104 Back

91   Ev 184 Back

92   Ev 103 [World of Hope]; Ev 106 [SmartJustice] Back

93   Q 225 Back

94   For an example, see "How parents can win the war against knife crime", The Daily Mirror, 12 June 2008, p 39 Back

95   Q 471 Back

96   Royal Armouries Museum, Tackling Knife Crime: A Review of Literature on Knife Crime in the UK, December 2007, para 5.12 Back

97   Chris Eades, Roger Grimshaw, Arianna Silvestri, Enver Solomon, Knife crime: a review of evidence and policy, 2nd edition (London: Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, 2007), p 9 Back

98   Letter from Sir Michael Scholar to Jeremy Heywood, 12 December 2008, published at  Back

99   Home Affairs Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2007-08, Policing in the 21st Century, HC 364, para 46 Back

100   Q 345 Back

101   Youth Justice Board, MORI Youth Survey 2008: Young people in mainstream education, February 2009, p 49 Back

102   Q 314 Back

103   "Deadly street culture: Lethal Posers of Britain's Bebo generation", The Independent, 13 July 2008, p 22 Back

104   Youth Justice Board, MORI Youth Survey 2008: Young people in mainstream education, February 2009, p 49 Back

105   Q 119 Back

106   Q 296 Back

107   Qq 340-1 Back

108   Ev 121 [Youth Justice Board]; Ev 111 [Police Federation] Back

109   Ev 147 Back

110   Youth Justice Board, MORI Youth Survey 2008: Young people in mainstream education, February 2009, p 49 Back

111   Q 278 Back

112   Ev 161 Back

113   Q 118 Back

114   Ev 104-5 Back

115   Ev 124 Back

116   Ev 159 Back

117   Uncorrected transcript of evidence to the Justice Committee to be published as HC 54-iii, Q 612 [Christian Pfeiffer] Back

118   Ev 104 [Nacro] Back

119   Kids Company, The Kids Company Brainwave: Learning from Vulnerable Children How to Care Better, p 10 Back

120   Q 409 Back

121   Ev 105-6 Back

122   "Councils should consider making Dark Knife a 15, say Tories", The Guardian, 6 August 2008, Back

123   Q 478 Back

124   Q 479 Back

125   Ibid Back

126   Q 487 Back

127   Q 488 Back

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