Scotland in grip of 'weapons culture'

Key points

• Arrests by Scottish police for weapon possession increase since last year

• Use of ad hoc weapons such as ash trays and belt buckles on the rise

• Forthcoming Police Bill will introduce hasher penalties for possession

Key quote

"It is not always just knives and other bladed instruments; people are using bottles, glasses, anything they can get their hands on.” - Tom Buchan, the president of the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents

Story in full SCOTLAND is in the grip of a deepening weapons culture, police warned yesterday, as new figures revealed an increase in the number of knives, baseball bats and other potentially lethal items being carried in almost every part of the country.

Statistics obtained by The Scotsman show that the number of people arrested for possessing offensive weapons last year increased in all but one police force area.

Knife crime has long been seen as a particular problem in Strathclyde, but latest figures suggest the carrying of weapons is now spreading more quickly outside the Central Belt, with Tayside, Fife and the Highlands seeing a surge in offenders.

Offences across Scotland totalled 9,374 in 2004-5, 3.5 per cent up on the previous year's figure of 9,058.

Senior police officers said part of the rise could be explained by more targeted searches, for example outside nightclubs, but admitted an increase in recent years of weapons being used and carried in the streets showed little sign of abating.

Officers are now reporting a surge in the use of "impromptu" weapons such as belt buckles and pint glasses in towns and cities, their use fuelled by alcohol, as well as a steady increase in the carrying of knives.

Police in Tayside, which has seen the biggest rise in offensive weapons - 39 per cent - say they are seeing the "creeping return" of knives being carried on the streets, following a high-profile crackdown in the mid-1990s.

Chief Superintendent Ian Alexander said police were now intensifying efforts to catch young people carrying weapons.

In Dundee, an intelligence-sharing scheme has been launched by police and the council which has resulted in nightclub banning orders being slapped on young troublemakers, while door staff are carrying out more searches. But Ch Supt Alexander added: "In the city centre, quite a few young females are carrying knives into clubs on behalf of young men because they don't think they'll be searched. Some are also carrying knives for their own protection.

"In general terms across Scotland there has been a creeping return to the carrying of bladed weapons.

"There's definitely a need to reduce the availability of knives. We have had a significant number of murders where people have gone and bought horrendous hunting knives with seven-inch blades.

"I cannot see any legitimate need for anyone in Scotland to be buying knives like that. It's not as if we have grizzly bears in this country."

Mr Alexander said a disturbing recent phenomenon was the use of belt buckles as weapons.

"We are seeing that a lot on CCTV. You find people involved in a disturbance outside a nightclub, and one of them takes off their belt, wraps it around their hand and lashes somebody with the buckle.

"The majority of serious assaults are now involving either belt buckles or bottles and ashtrays smuggled out of clubs.

"It's very much what they can lay their hands on at the time."

Four out of Scotland's eight police forces separately tally the number of knives carried in public places, and each one saw a year-on-year increase in the offence.

The biggest rise in 2004-5 was in Tayside, which saw a 49 per cent increase, followed by Fife (22 per cent), Central (17 per cent) and Strathclyde (0.5 per cent).

Tom Buchan, the president of the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents, said more people were carrying weapons on the streets of Scotland's towns and cities.

"What this appears to be is evidence of a growing weapons culture in Scotland.

"There is a widespread acceptance of a greater propensity for young people, predominantly male, to carry weapons.

"It is not always just knives and other bladed instruments; people are using bottles, glasses, anything they can get their hands on.

"You also have young people drinking more, which makes them lose their inhibitions.

"But there are a range of factors behind this. If you throw more resources at the problem, or target them better, the figures will rise." Mr Buchan said he supported proposed new legislation to double punishments for people caught carrying knives.

"Even if it doesn't lead to a significant rise in convictions, it sends out a powerful message that this is a 'no-no'."

Kenny MacAskill, the SNP justice spokesman, said: "Part of the increase can be down to more proactive policing, but this is a cultural problem which cannot be addressed by criminal justice measures alone.

"A visible police presence, strict enforcement and severe punishment is necessary, but we need to educate our youngsters in particular that weapons are not tolerated, and cause death and hardship.

"Scotland has to take a long hard look at the bevvy culture as well as the knife culture. The two go hand-in-hand, causing mayhem in many areas, particularly at weekends."

A Scottish Executive spokesman said ministers were "concerned" at the high levels of violent crime involving the use of knives and other offensive weapons.

"Clearly too many people, particularly young men, view the carrying of knives as acceptable, when it is not. Following our Partnership Agreement, we have been undertaking a review of knife-crime law and enforcement in Scotland and in November the First Minister announced a five-point plan to tighten the law in this area.

"The carrying of long, pointed knives (including kitchen knives) in public is already an offence and we now intend to double the current maximum penalty from two to four years in the forthcoming Police Bill.

"The bill will also improve the police's powers of arrest for such offences and raise the minimum age for the sale for knives from 16 to 18. We will be also shortly be consulting on proposals for further restrictions on the sale of non-domestic knives and swords."

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