Championing original and authoritative research


James Densley on Making Sense of Senseless Knife Crime

By the author of How Gangs Work

Knife crime in England and Wales rose to record levels in 2017-18, including 285 fatal stabbings—the highest number since Home Office records began in 1946. According to the Office for National Statistics, victims and perpetrators were most likely to be men aged 16-24.

Much ink has been spilled in the last year about the reasons for escalating violence. As a criminologist who has studied serious youth violence for over a decade, I’ve been invited to share some hypotheses that might shed light on rising knife crime and possible avenues for intervention.

1. More knives, more knife crime

While knife possession offences have been rising since 2013, they are still lower than a decade ago. Still, knife possession now makes up a bigger share of all weapons offences—two-thirds compared with half 10 years ago. Why are more people in possession of a bladed article in a public place?

Research shows that the primarily motivations for carrying a knife are (a) self-protection and (b) self-presentation. People who are afraid of violent victimization, owing to personal or vicarious experience and the routine of disorganized neighbourhoods, are more likely to carry a weapon. People who distrust the police and/or are embedded in criminal networks, gangs, and delinquent peer groups are also more likely to carry a weapon.

Carrying a knife is part of the performance of gang membership and conforming to expectations about how “real gangsters” behave and act. People post images of themselves online brandishing knives in an effort to convey a tough identity to audiences real and perceived. Often lost on those audiences is the likelihood that the people posing with knives had borrowed them, for only a short time, from a friend or the cutlery draw, and that all the photos were taken at the same time. Still, each selfie creates the impression that knife carrying is normal and out of fear of missing out, others follow suit.

Like sex, teenagers talk about carrying a knife far more than they actually do it, but all that talk dials up the expectation that everyone is doing it. So too does all the media talk about it—there’s a risk that all the headlines, news bulletins, and documentaries on knife crime contribute to contagion by handing young people a script for the streets.

People’s adoption of terrifying Zombie and Rambo knives (just google #theresthatknifeagain) likewise contributes to the perception of a perennial threat of violence, which, in turn, encourages more people to start carrying said knifes in the name of self-preservation. It’s an arms race. And like any arms race, arms dealers are the only ones who profit. Anglo Arms’ marketing of their inexpensive knives to impressionable young Britons today is eerily reminiscent of the way in which the Ring of Fire gun manufacturers flooded California with cheap guns called “Saturday Night Specials” in the 1990s—the result being unprecedented levels of youth violence.

2. Social media

Every day, young people use social media to post hundreds of insults and threats against opponents. Few of those postings spark real violence, but some do; which is what makes the digital age so unique. When challenges to status and reputation are perceived as egregious and taunts are seen by the entire internet, the imperatives for violent retaliation to save face are massive. As outlined in my recent TEDx Talk, so too are the status rewards when one’s recorded reprisal goes viral. We’re living in an age of anger and on social media, rage and indignation can be compelling, cathartic, and contagious. Anger can incite a person to action, lower inhibitions, even fashion a desire for revenge; hence rising knife crime.

3. Drugs and county lines

Evidence suggests that illicit drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin are purer, cheaper, and more readily available than ever. Drugs have been linked to violence directly via their psychoactive effects and indirectly via robberies to service drug dependence. But perhaps more important is the systemic violence associated with the drug trade: (a) internal violence to discipline a difficult workforce and discourage informants; (b) external violence to manage market competition or contraction; and (c) transactional violence to resolve disagreements about the terms of a deal. Grievances in illicit drugs markets cannot be settled through legal channels. As drugs gangs evolve and commute from their urban hubs to satellite locations in search of new customers on “county lines”, stabbings involving drug dealers as victims or suspects can only increase.

4. Masculinity 

Nearly all perpetrators of knife crime have one thing in common: gender. Given that over 90% of fatal stabbings are committed by men, I’d be remiss not to mention masculinity—something my friend and fellow Palgrave author Ross Deuchar finds key to gang membership. A variety of factors are associated with committing serious violence, such as stress and trauma, living in a violent neighbourhood, and adverse childhood experiences. But being a male remains one of the best predictive risk factors for becoming a violent offender, in part because of cultural norms—reinforced in movies, sports, and our everyday personal and professional lives—that shape expectations for how aggressively men should react to stress and perceived victimization as compared to women. The question of course is why modern men feel so angry and aggrieved in the first place, which brings me to my final hypothesis.

5. Austerity and public trust

Reductions in public spending under the government’s austerity program have direct and indirect effects on crime rates. New research finds that councils with large cuts to youth services were more likely to have seen an increase in knife crime. The implication being that when work and opportunity disappear, so do viable alternatives to street violence. Lest we forget, this generation of young Britons grew up amid the 2008 global financial crisis and the resulting recession, and thanks to mounting student debt and all the Brexit chaos, their futures look even more uncertain. It’s enough to make anyone join a gang for its perceived social and economic benefits or pick up a knife in despair.

At the same time, the decline in the number of police officers under austerity has stymied knife crime prevention and deterrence, not to mention officer morale and mental health. Overstretched police who can’t refuse 999 calls are now forced to do the work of social service agencies that have suffered their own funding cuts or been eliminated entirely. Delayed response times and any rise in unsolved crimes contributes to distrust of police and signals that young people are better off policing themselves. Which brings us back to my first point about carrying a knife for protection—this is a violence feedback loop.

Reasons for rising knife crime are complicated, but the first step to solving complex problems is admitting that complexity exists. Violence is allegedly one of the most intractable issues of our time, but we already possess many of the tools necessary to curtail it. The time is now for policymakers to act upon the research of academics who have worked directly with young people and communities affected by knife crime, or with practitioners working to manage it.


James Densley is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Metropolitan State University, co-founder of The Violence Project, and the author of How Gangs Work: An Ethnography of Youth Violence (Palgrave, 2013).