Knife culture thrives despite amnesty

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A NATIONAL WEAPONS amnesty and tough new laws introduced after the murder of Philip Lawrence, the London head teacher, have failed to reverse the growing number of fatal knife attacks in Britain.

Last week, Mr Lawrence's widow, Frances, and Doreen Lawrence, mother of the murdered black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, jointly awarded the accolade "Women of the Year", spoke out together against violence, and the use of knives.

Next month Home Office figures will show that knife attacks accounted for approximately one third of the 711 homicides in England and Wales in 1997. Although the amnesty that followed Philip Lawrence's death outside his school in west London in 1995 led to 40,000 illegal blades being surrendered, and the introduction of tough laws on the carrying of knives and banning the sale of combat knives, the measures have failed to have any impact.

Tens of thousands of people are stabbed in Britain each year. In 1996, the year following Mr Lawrence's murder, there were 3,000 stabbings in London alone, an increase of 13 per cent on the year before. The recent introduction of life sentences for third-offence violent offenders have yet to make an impact on the figures but Home Office analysis, published last week, showed that violent offences, including more than 20,000 knife attacks, have continued to rise, while crime overall has fallen significantly for the first time since the 1950s.

Learco Chindamo was only 15 when he murdered Mr Lawrence, who was trying to defend a pupil from a gang attack. According to criminologists, Chindamo was a typical product of the teenage knife-carrying subculture that has taken root in Britain. Researchers at Exeter University discovered up to 4 per cent of 14 and 15-year-old boys admitted taking knives into class.

There is also evidence that an increasing number of teenage girls, particular those in inner cities, now arm themselves against attack. Frances Lawrence has campaigned against knife-carrying and drug use among Britain's youth. Although she admits doubts about what can really be achieved in reducing knife violence, she takes solace in the positive efforts of the young which will be highlighted at the forthcoming Philip Lawrence Awards.

"So many young people don't know how to get out of this knife culture," she said. "It is still a minority, but it is a big minority. Many carry a knife in the same way you or I carry a comb. Sometimes the situation does appear very bleak."

Mrs Lawrence believes violent arcade games and films help fuel the aggressive fantasies of increasingly alienated young people. She cites the case of killer Nathan Brown, a lonely teenager from south London, who drifted into a fantasy world based on shocking images from kung fu computer games and martial arts magazines. He became obsessed by the Chinese triads and called himself Silver Monkey. Last year he attacked fellow schoolboy Carl Rickard with a 17in machete.

In another case of fact and fiction fusing, two young men were stabbed in a motiveless attack in central London last weekend. They were actors in the classic musical about warring New York gangs, West Side Story, that culminates in a stabbing.

Alex Harkins, 21, who gets in stage fights every night at the Prince Edward Theatre in the West End, was set upon by two men as he walked home with two other cast members.

"I thought I just had bruises and a nosebleed, but then I looked under my arm and there was a huge slice where I'd been slashed," said Mr Harkins. He had 25 stitches in the arm, back and face.

"I can appreciate the irony of the situation," he added. "The character I play, Baby John, gets beaten up all the time. But this wasn't like stage fighting at all."