Can this really cut knife crime?

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IN THE early Nineties, Strathclyde Police launched Operation Blade, designed to crack down on violent crimes involving knives. Operation Blade was prompted by a wave of media publicity about knife crime and resulted in more than 5,000 weapons being handed in to the police.

Some time later, Glasgow Royal Infirmary conducted a detailed analysis of the impact of Operation Blade. The report read: "There were no significant differences in the nature or number of assault victims attending this hospital one year after Operation Blade compared with the month before its implementation." The report concluded: "Operation Blade reduced the number of serious stabbings for a period of ten months, but subsequently numbers surpassed those prevailing before its implementation."

The failure of Operation Blade - and other worthy initiatives like it - is pertinent when examining the efficacy of the Executive's decision to make the sale of swords and non-domestic knives subject to licence. The rationale for such legislation, according to the justice minister, Cathy Jamieson, is to make it more difficult for people to buy offensive weapons. Retailers will need to record a purchaser's name, address and age.

There is no doubt that Scotland, particularly Strathclyde, suffers from endemic violent crime involving knives. Between 1998 and 2003, around half of the 667 murders in Scotland involved the use of a knife. However, this appalling knife culture has been with us for well over a century. The Executive is right to try to focus on the problem, but in this instance there is more than a hint of politicians legislating in order to be seen to be active. Unfortunately, this particular piece of legislation is bureaucratic, probably unworkable and more than likely to prove as futile as Operation Blade.

Leave aside the legal difficulty of defining a non-domestic knife. Ignore the additional red tape involved for shopkeepers or anyone trying to buy a ceremonial sgian dubh for a wedding. Does anyone imagine it is beyond the ability of a thug to buy a kitchen knife?

Most knife assaults take place at the weekend, between 8pm and 4am, and involve alcohol. The resulting murders are rarely premeditated. The route to reducing knife crime effectively lies in zero-tolerance policing in city centres at the weekend, in ending the culture of binge drinking among young men, and in a higher clear-up rate for criminals involved in knife assaults (which is unacceptably low in Strathclyde).

Licensing the purchase of knives is a marginal palliative likely to waste police time in arresting shopkeepers rather than catching neds. Far better that the time of the police and courts is left free to deal with the real criminals at source.