A nationwide knife amnesty will be launched by police tomorrow in the aftermath of the stabbing to death of the school headmaster Philip Lawrence.
A record number of people were killed in knifing incidents last year - more than five a week - providing evidence that a growing number of young men and teenagers carry "blades".
Police are concerned about the widespread availability of knives, which can be bought from DIY shops for as little as 50p, or specialist magazines and dealers in military weapons for more than pounds 1,000. There is no age restriction on buying knives - in theory a three-year-old could go into a shop and purchase a Bowie knife with a 12-inch blade.
From tomorrow until 20 January, owners of knives will be able to surrender the weapons anonymously in special bins located in police stations throughout the 43 forces in England and Wales.
The concern about a growing knife culture in Britain was highlighted by the stabbing to death of Mr Lawrence on 8 December. His murder, outside his school in Maida Vale, north-west London, has prompted the police to launch the knife amnesty.
Last year 236 people - 165 of them men - were killed in England and Wales by a "sharp instrument", compared to 183 the previous year, Home Office figures reveal. In Scotland, 58 victims died in knife attacks, an increase of 14 from 1993.
The diversity of knives on sale has never been greater. Magazines such as Combat & Militaria and Combat and Survival carry pages of adverts for weapons including throwing knives (pounds 11.50), hunting knives (from pounds 17), and doubled-edged commando knives (pounds 19).
James Marchington, editor of Combat & Militaria, which this month carries a review of "Spanish Blades", said: "The knife-carrying culture needs to be attacked. There's an element who are prepared to carry knives and misuse them. While there are DIY and kitchen shops selling knives to anyone who wants them, passing laws is pretty useless."
Frank Kay, owner of Framar Hammerli UK, in Blackburn, one of the largest suppliers of military and hunting style knives, said that teenagers were fascinated by the weapons he sold in his shop. "What little boys aren't interested in a Bowie or a throwing knife?"
He said he would never sell anything to someone aged under 17, although he admitted he had no control over goods sold via mail order. "It's the person that holds the knife that the laws should be dealing with, not the weapon," he said.
At the London Trading Place, in central London, customers can choose from a selection of several hundred knives costing from about pounds 10. Top- quality "survival knives" with eight-inch blades, a serrated edge and a "skull-crushing" handle retails for pounds 197.
Asked why people bought the combat knives, an attendant replied: "It's like, why drive a Jaguar rather than a Mini? These knives are Jaguars."
Alan Galer, manager of Burgess & Galer, which supplies the West End theatre trade with knives, said it would be almost impossible to legislate against the sale of knives capable of killing because they also have many legitimate uses. "What's the difference between a chef's knife and a dagger? Many murders are committed with them as well.
"There's always been a problem with knives. We sell a lot of things that could be used as dangerous weapons but we are responsible. Sometimes we do get dodgy-looking people in here and we won't sell knives to them."
Police raids have uncovered a huge variety of weapons being held by teenagers. In London this has included bayonets, flick knives, hunting knives, craft knives and ceremonial daggers as well as kitchen knives. In south-east London this has resulted in a police campaign aimed at schoolchildren, including one called Kids Against Knives.
However, the impression that schools are awash with knives is wrong, according to some criminologists. John Pitts, Professor of Applied Social Sciences at Brunel University, who recently completed a survey of two secondary schools, in east London and in Liverpool, said: "We are now fast approaching a Los Angles-style gang situation."
However, he calculated that less than 5 per cent of the pupils in the London school carried knives, but none were reported in the Liverpool school. He said stabbings raised the fear of knife attacks, which in turn made the carrying of knives more likely for protection.
Jock Young, Professor of Criminology at Middlesex University, added: "It is really common for people including young women to carry knives now for self-defence. There's a macho culture growing up which revolves around violence but knives are carried by only a minority of people."
t Two pubs are using metal detectors to scan customers for hidden knives because of fears of increased violence in public houses.
Bouncers are using hand-held detectors during the weekends at the pubs in the city centre of Durham. The move follows an incident in which a doorman was wounded in a knife attack outside the Coach and Eight.
A spokesman for the pub said: "We brought it in after we started getting trouble. You read about stabbings and trouble in the area, particularly in Newcastle. This seems to be getting worse so we wanted to put a stop to it."
He said there had been no trouble with knives since the detectors were introduced.
Paul Martin, manager of the other pub involved, the Fighting Cocks, said: "It seems to be working as we've only found a couple of pocket knives since we starting using the machines about three months ago. The customers all think it's a good idea."