Knives, guns, gangs: The effort to counter the spread of weapons carrying by young people is gathering pace. We visit Leeds

As gun and knife crime among young people appears to spiral, Mark Hunter visits a project in Leeds that is raising awareness  of the impact of such weapons

Another day, another shooting, another stabbing. As these pages went to press four youths aged between 15 and 17 were on trial, accused of the fatal shooting of 31-year-old Zainab Kalokoh in Peckham, south London, last year. At the Old Bailey
19-year-old Tyrell Anderson was denying murder but admitting the manslaughter of his 18-year-old friend Tommy Winston who suffered fatal knife wounds during an argument over the sale of a mobile phone.

Two more teenagers were in court accused of murdering City lawyer Tom ap Rhys Pryce who was stabbed earlier this year.

This followed a week in which another teenager was jailed for life after stabbing 11-year-old Joe Geeling to death and a boy
of 16 faced a retrial after an Old Bailey jury failed to reach a verdict on the killing of 15- year-old Kiyan Prince.

Elsewhere there is compelling evidence of a growing weapons-carrying mentality among the UK’s young people. The Metropolitan Police estimates that in London 52 teenagers are victims of knife crime every week. The five-week National Knife Amnesty, held in England and Wales this summer, netted nearly 90,000 knives. A survey by The Guardian found that 50 per cent of head teachers had caught a pupil carrying a knife in the previous 12 months.

Another by the Daily Mirror found that during the first 20 days of the autumn term in September, 83 serious incidents involving knives were reported in secondary schools and 28 in primaries.

Gun-carrying also seems to be rising, with an increase in the number of overall offences involving firearms reported each year since 1997-8. Although these figures paint an alarming picture of young people’s growing familiarity with deadly weapons, there is another side to the story. The actual use of these weapons does not seem to be increasing at all. If anything it has gone into decline.
For instance, the British Crime Survey divides knife crime into four categories: domestic, acquaintance, stranger and mugging. Of these, only in stranger violence was there an increase in the use of knives in incidents recorded between 1995 and 2005-6. In the same period there were significant decreases in the three other categories. Overall, knives were used in only 7 per cent of all violent incidents reported in 2005-6 compared with 8 per cent in 1995.

Home Office figures for gun crime show a similar trend. Handguns were used in 4,326 offences in 2004-5, down 16 per cent on 2003-4. Shotguns were used in 18 per cent fewer offences than in the previous year. Armed robberies fell by 9 per cent.

It appears that, although hardened criminals are now less likely to carry a weapon with the intention of using it during a crime, there has been a corresponding increase in the casual possession of weapons by people with no criminal record. This may explain why there has been a decline in serious injuries caused by firearms while minor injuries have risen by 83 per cent.

Government initiatives to combat the trend for young people to carry weapons include the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, now at the report stage in the House of Lords.

This restricts the sale of replica guns, tightens the law on air guns, raises the age limit for buying knives to 18 and gives head teachers the right to search pupils for weapons. The Home Office has also launched the Connected programme, which supports projects tackling the weapons culture.

One such project is the Weapons Awareness Programme run by the Leeds Youth Offending Service (YOS) in partnership with the local education service, police force and youth groups. Specially trained volunteers conduct hard-hitting workshops to raise awareness among young people about the potentially devastating consequences of carrying a weapon.

Organised by YOS youth workers Mark Cooper and Gary Collins, the programme is based on the Be Safe concept launched in the London Borough of Newham by three former police officers in 1998.

“Be Safe came up here about three years ago and trained a lot of us how to run the sessions,” says Cooper. “Since then we have added our own bits and pieces and we now take it into schools, to cadets in the army and to young people on final warnings with the police. We also work with young people on ISSPs (intensive supervision and surveillance programmes).”

In the past year 3,660 young people from schools and youth organisations have taken part in the programme. Cooper and Collins estimate they have seen a further 1,500 through the YOS. Their experience shows a dire need for this kind of education.

“You’d be surprised how common it is [to carry a weapon],” says Cooper. “When we go into schools we ask the teacher to leave the room and then ask the class how many have ever carried a knife for protection or as a weapon. Often half the class put their hands up. A lot live on some pretty rough estates and it’s not even a macho thing any longer. We see young girls in years 10 and 11 who admit carrying knives.”

The workshops are intentionally lurid about the damage that can be inflicted, even by a simple penknife. “We take them through the history of knives, show them how they were originally developed for ripping flesh,” says Cooper. “We have some really horrible photos showing the consequences of using a knife.

We explain about clinical shock, how much blood there is in the body and show how easy it is to sever a main artery. It’s pretty graphic and a lot of the young people are shocked when they see it.”

The workshops also aim to address the reasons why young people carry weapons. “Most people who carry knives say they do it for their own protection,” says Cooper.

“But we explain that a knife doesn’t really offer any protection at all. It’s usually the person who pulls out a knife that ends up losing it and then getting stabbed.”

Although Leeds has a comparatively low level of gun crime – West Yorkshire Police deals with about 1,700 firearm crimes each
year, about 80 per cent of which involve criminal damage caused by air rifles – there is concern at the increasing use of imitation weapons. Nationally, crimes involving imitation weapons have increased by 55 per cent in the past year.

“You can buy a BB [ball bearing] gun in the shops,” says Cooper. “I just can’t fathom why that is allowed. So one of the things we try to get across is how easy it is for the police to mistake a BB gun for the real thing. We show them photos of a real gun and an imitation and ask them to identify which is which. It’s not easy.”

Some workshops have been held at Leeds Armouries museum whose IMPACT exhibition uses photographs, videos and personal testimonies from victims and their families to examine the effects of gun crime on a Leeds community.

Cooper says: “The gang culture is coming up fast in Leeds, especially involving drug dealing, and we have seen an increase
in the use of guns. It’s not as bad as it is in Manchester and we are trying to keep it that way. It’s about raising awareness and early intervention.”

According to Cooper, the feedback from the programme has been overwhelmingly positive with many young people saying they will now think twice about carrying a weapon. It remains to be seen whether this new awareness will be reflected in a reduced number of weapons on the streets of Leeds. However, the 1,413 knives, including three samurai swords, two kukri knives and a throwing axe that were handed in to West Yorkshire police during the summer’s knife amnesty, suggests the Leeds weapons awareness programme still has a long way to go.

This article appeared in the 9 November issue under the headline “Farewell to Arms?”


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