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One Approach to the U.K.’s Stabbing Epidemic: Stop Selling Knives

While the U.S. is debating semi-automatic gun sales, in the U.K., combatting a crime wave means pulling ordinary kitchen knives off grocery store shelves.

On Friday, the CEO of supermarket operator Co-operative Group said on an earnings call that the chain—the U.K.’s sixth-largest—had stopped selling single kitchen knives a few weeks ago.

“We’ve launched our safer colleague, safer community campaign to support colleague safety and help identify the causes of community crime. This has seen us remove kitchen knives from sale in our stores,” Steve Murrells told reporters, according to Reuters.

The Co-op is the latest in an expanding line of supermarkets that are responding to record numbers of fatal stabbings in England and Wales. There were almost 40,000 knife crimes committed in the year up until September 2018, up two-thirds over the last four years. Most involved knives being used for assault and robbery, but there were 285 knife-related homicides—the most since 1946. Almost half of those killings were in London.

The reason behind the current spike in knife-related homicides is the subject of an intense national debate in the U.K. The opposition Labour Party and some police chiefs have pinned much of the blame on the Conservative government’s austerity policies, which have involved cuts in police funding. Prime Minister Theresa May has claimed there is no direct correlation with police numbers. There has also been something of a moral panic over a form of rap called drill music, which often features violent lyrics.

Last month, Walmart-owned Asda—the U.K.’s second-biggest supermarket chain—said it would stop selling single kitchen knives by the end of April. Asda senior vice president Nick Jones said at the time that the chain had already tried to restrict knife sales, but “felt there was more we could be doing to support those looking at how to bring this issue under control.”

Last year, 17 U.K. retailers—including online stores such as Amazon—agreed to conduct proof-of-age checks when customers buy knives or have them delivered, to check they are at least 18 years old. That age limit was imposed in the Violent Crime Reduction Act of 2006. The retailers also agreed to “ensure knives are displayed and packaged securely as appropriate to minimize risk.”

Tesco, the biggest supermarket chain in the country, stopped selling kitchen knives in its urban Express stores and online back in 2016. It is currently conducting a trial at one London store, keeping the knives in a locked cabinet to stop them being stolen.

“We continue to introduce new ways to strengthen how we sell knives responsibly, including exploring more stringent security measures in-store and working with our suppliers to increase security around knife packaging to prevent theft and ensure customers can still purchase products safely,” a Tesco spokesperson said.

Morrisons, another big supermarket chain, has stopped selling kitchen knives altogether at a number of its London stores.

The private ownership of handguns has been largely banned in the U.K. since a 1996 school massacre in Dunblane, Scotland. In the year up to March 2018, there were just 29 homicides in England and Wales that involved firearms—21 of which were known to involve unlicensed guns.