Knives and stupid laws

I’ve been meaning to write something about the debate about weapons laws in the letters page of the Spectator for as long as it’s been going on, but have never got round to it, and today, in the absence of a rush to work before 7am and a tired return, I thought I’d finally get round to doing it. A few weeks ago, the Spectator carried the headline “Blunkett’s Police State”, in which a businessman named Nicky Samengo-Turner wrote about how he had been searched at random by ill-tempered police while going about his lawful business in London. The police found a tool knife and a baton, both of which they considered unlawful “offensive weapons”. The author had put the baton in his briefcase to hide it from his children, and carried it out of his house by mistake. He also complained of having been assaulted at the police station. The feedback to this article included one letter from someone whose grandson was convicted of carrying an offensive weapon when police searched their bags when they went on a camping trip to Devon. The knife is apparently illegal because it has a lock, to prevent the knife collapsing on the hand when in use (I have some simple pen-knives in my room, and they do indeed collapse when under pressure). Another letter, from Edward Spalton in Derby, took issue with an earlier letter from a police officer, which he described as betraying “the sort of aggressive, officious thuggishness which has become a characteristic of some of our police”. The Spectator’s editorial response to the Samengo-Turner article was a piece headlined “Enemies of Liberty”:

While [the Conservatives] are inclined to harness the lawfulness and decency of the general population in the fight against crime, Labour’s instinct is to seek to control, not to trust, the population. … By 2008, anyone applying for a passport will be obliged to apply also for an identity card. To gain an ID card, it will be necessary to give fingerprints and have one’s eyes scanned in order to give a ‘biometric image’ of the eye. By 2012 it is the government’s intention that everyone will have an ID card, at a cost to each of us of £85. Citizens will not merely be treated like suspects from CSI; they will be obliged to pay for the privilege.

Of course, this was written before the Conservatives actually announced their support for the introduction of ID cards. If they hadn’t, I might have broken the habit of a lifetime at the next election and voted Tory. (Then again, I think our MP round here is a Liberal Democrat, and they oppose ID cards anyway.)

It seems that now is a good time to blog on this because of a series of high-profile fatal stabbings in and around London; for example, the stabbing of financier John Monckton in November, the murder of an off-licence (liquor store) owner by people who stole two bottles of some alcoholic drink, and yesterday’s appalling rampage by a mentally-ill man with a knife in north London. This has led to the usual calls for compulsory minimum sentences for anyone merely carrying a knife. Of course, to certain people who call talk radio shows, anyone who thinks otherwise must be stupid.

Let me get one thing straight: I don’t believe people should be locked up for merely possessing anything, because such laws give a convenient excuse for people to slip things into someone’s bag and then tip off the police. When the issue of whether carrying knives for self-defence is brought up, the usual response is that someone might get into a fight and then use the knife while in a temper. The answer to this is that the recent fatal stabbings (and shootings) have been the work of people who set out to kill and rob - plain criminals and sick people. Imposing a mandatory five-year sentence for merely carrying a knife is more likely to penalise the unlucky who get caught in a random stop and search than an actual villain. (The actual villain may carry a gun instead; it’s easier to shoot a copper than stab him.)

And these people would most likely be caught by the fundamental failure of the English legal system: its requirement that common people act as if they have the full, as opposed to general, knowledge of the law. Everyone knows that carrying knives as weapons is illegal; most people don’t know that carrying tool knives, even for perfectly legitimate purposes, can get you into trouble. Try working in the distribution industry, where you regularly have to cut through plastic bindings, without a Stanley-type knife and you’ll see what I mean. It’s even known for the policy on law enforcement to change without the public being informed. For example, the speed limit for heavy trucks on single-carriageway (undivided) main roads is 40 mph (for vans it’s 50, for cars 60). There was a time when policemen would stop drivers keeping to this law and tell them to do 50, because everyone knows that such trucks cause an obstruction and a nuisance. More recently the policy has changed, and there have been reports in the trucking press of inspectors checking the tachograph records, which show how fast a vehicle was going and when, to check for likely violations of the 40 mph law. If our rulers are going to work on the “ignorance is no defence” principle, they at least have the duty to tell us what is and isn’t illegal.

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