The Slatest

Why Are So Many American Conservatives Worked Up About London’s Knife Murders?

London Mayor Sadiq Khan at podium reading "Vote Labour."
London Mayor Sadiq Khan speaks during the launch of the Labour Party’s local election campaign in central London on Monday.
Daniel Leal-Olivas/Getty Images

In the largely static gun control debate often lacking in precedent in the U.S., activists on both sides often look to crime-related data from other countries to bolster their arguments for or against the regulation of firearms.

Gun rights advocates, in particular, have repeated arguments both historical (in particular, the inaccurate claim that Hitler confiscated all weapons) and modern (for example, high gun ownership in low-crime Switzerland and—incorrectly—low gun ownership in tyrannical countries). This week gave gun proponents another international example to strengthen their arguments with a report that London has become particularly anxious about its high levels of knife crime.

On Saturday, the New York Times published an article about the current uptick in knife-related killings in London—the highest in six years—that has contributed to roughly three murders a week for the past year and has been largely attributed to drug gang violence and cuts to social services programs.

The city’s violent spike, which defied a longer-term decline in violence, coincides with a record low in New York’s murder rate, leading to a Fox News headline: “London Murder Rate Beats New York for Month as Stabbings Surge.” For two months, London had more killings than New York.

The news did not go unnoticed:

Some of the blame was also reserved for London’s liberal mayor, Sadiq Khan, who, among more racist Twitter users, was criticized as “Muslim Khan.” Khan, for his part, has blamed funding cuts to policing.

But the real conservative outcry came not with the cause but with the response. On Friday, the city announced a plan to address the knife violence with measures that included a new task force and increased stop-and-frisk policing, a popular demand among some British conservatives.

The conservative response to those actions did not spill into the larger twittersphere until early Sunday, when a bluntly worded tweet from Khan stirred up outrage and delight.

The tweet linked to the Friday city announcement and not, as some assumed, a law cracking down on all knife ownership. Britain has long had some of the strictest gun regulations in the world, corresponding to one of the lowest gun violence rates in the world. British civilians can buy guns, particularly for hunting and sport, but they cannot own handguns or semi-automatic or pump-action firearms. All shotgun owners are also required to register their firearms.

Likely as a result of the low rate of gun use, most concerns about crime have been directed toward knives. Many types of knives (butterfly knives, switchblades, knives disguised in everyday objects, for example) as well as other similar weapons (swords, throwing stars, and batons) have been outlawed outright. Only pocket knives can be purchased by anyone younger than 18 or carried around. Exceptions are made for weapons used for work or teaching purposes, or of religious or cultural significance.

This week’s announcement from the city, then, only deals with enforcement of the strict regulations already in place. According to the statement, the city will, among other measures, start directing more funding toward youth programs to reach those considering or already in gangs or those at risk of knife violence, as well as to its law enforcement, which will now have a new task force and patrols with extra stop-and-search privileges.

It’s unclear if the conservatives reacting to Khan’s tweet were aware that Britain’s knife laws are not new, or that they’re not a major political battleground, but they responded with alarm and an I-told-you-so satisfaction.

The “people kill people, guns don’t kill people” argument, long popular among outspoken gun rights advocates, had its moment on Monday. Regardless of the fact that two months of data can’t be safely extrapolated for any larger conclusions, that New York isn’t the U.S. city with the highest homicide rate, and that knife violence really can’t be compared to gun violence, pro-gun conservatives had fun mocking attitudes across the pond. But because the argument in this instance can’t apply to conversations about mass shootings and doesn’t particularly bolster any other arguments about non-gang murders (domestic violence, for example), it is likely to fade from the public conversation to become one of many minor weapons in the pro-gun arsenal.