SHARP TURN On the knife’s edge As Toronto cops crack down on guns, thugs turn
SHARP TURN On the knife’s edge As Toronto cops crack down on guns, thugs turn
to their weapon of second choice
Standing behind the counter of his knife stall at a Mississauga flea market, Serge
Cotrim whips open a Paratrooper pocket knife, revealing a menacing eight-centimetre
blade. “It’s not a switchblade,” he says, slipping the foldable weapon
back into his belt, “but it’s pretty close.” It’s illegal to sell
or carry a switchblade in Canada, yet knife retailers can sell near-replicas such
as the Paratrooper to any adult for bargain-basement prices. At Blades 4 You, the
stall at the opposite end of the Dixie Outlet Mall’s weekend flea market, the
clerk happily lopped $15 off the price of a $45 hunting blade to make a sale.
In Toronto and its suburbs, the ease with which you can purchase a knife attracts
scant attention. Instead, the city is so consumed with combatting gun crime that
Mayor David Miller and City Council will vote this month on the extraordinary step
of evicting legal gun clubs from publicly owned locations such as Union Station,
where a gun club has been housed since 1921.
While homicide detectives and policy-makers say firearms are still the biggest scourge
on Toronto’s streets, the attention, time and money dedicated in the past few
years to cracking down on gun crime has made it tougher for aspiring criminals to
obtain their weapon of choice.
That means they are unsheathing their weapons of second choice – kitchen knives,
jackknives, hunting knives and, if they can get them, illegal switchblades and butterfly
knives. “All those things we’re doing to decrease firearm weapons is cutting
down the availability of these guns,” says Staff Inspector Brian Raybould,
the head of the Toronto police homicide squad. “At the same time, criminals
who choose to arm themselves have to find some way to do it. If firearms aren’t
available, what’s the next best thing? Knives, sharp-edged weapons.” Heightened
security at Canada-U.S. border crossings and programs such as the Toronto Anti-Violence
Intervention Strategy (TAVIS), started in 2005 to curb street violence by increasing
the police presence in high-crime neighbourhoods, have helped to drive down the
frequency of gunpoint retail and bank heists. Robbers are turning to knives instead,
Staff Insp. Raybould says.
Over all, police and paramedics in the Greater Toronto Area attended more stabbing
calls from January to April this year (April is the last month of 2008 for which
statistics are available) than they did in the same period last year.
Toronto police responded to 167 stabbings up to the end of April, 2008 – in 73 of
those cases, the victims were taken to hospital in serious condition. That’s
up from 58 by April last year.
Still, overall homicide rates – by any method – for Toronto and its suburbs are
roughly the same so far this year as they were last year.
Toronto’s first homicide of 2008 was the stabbing death of 14-year-old Stefanie
Rengel, allegedly at the hands of jealous teenagers. Of Peel Region’s 11 homicides
so far this year, six were stabbings, including the seemingly random and brutal
parking-lot slaying of Brampton couple Nazifa and Rahimullah Shahghasy. The weapon
of choice was a kitchen knife.
Canada’s knife laws are generally lax: Only a few types of blades are prohibited.
The Criminal Code says that simply carrying a butterfly knife or a switchblade is
considered a crime, but beyond that, a person in Canada can be charged only if he
or she carries a legal knife with the intention of hurting someone, threatens someone
with the knife or stabs someone.
In Britain, where Robert Knox, 18, who played schoolmate Marcus Belby in the Harry
Potter movies, was stabbed to death with a wood-handled kitchen knife outside a
pub last month, it is illegal to carry any knife longer than 7.62 centimetres. It
is also illegal to sell a knife of any kind to someone under 18.
Yet stabbings have become an epidemic in Britain. Mr. Knox and more than 30 others
died at knifepoint in the first five months of this year. The deaths are just a
few of the 100-plus stabbings seen in the country since January, and police say
most are committed by young men in their teens or early 20s.
Some experts point to Britain’s strict gun laws to explain the surge in violent
knifings. It’s called the substitution effect, says Jack Levin, co-director
of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University in Boston.
He has been watching the “fewer guns, more knives” phenomenon for years
in the United States.
“When you’re successful at limiting guns, you also open the door to more
knives being used on the streets,” he says. Mr. Levin says homicide rates tend
to remain level as the number of assaults rise simply because it’s harder to
kill someone with a knife than a gun.
“There may even be an evolutionary prohibition against stabbing or bludgeoning
or strangling someone. That kind of up-close, personal contact may not be in our
genes. But using a gun is as easy as dropping a bomb,” he says.
In Toronto, Staff Insp. Raybould also points out that the cast of characters, settings
and chain of events leading to a stabbing are typically different than in a shooting.
Stabbings often stem from domestic disputes or fights among teenagers and small-time
crooks who do not have access to firearms. While “guns with a capital G”
are still the big problem, Staff Insp. Raybould says, knives are a frequent tool
of choice because they are so easy – and cheap – to get.
“A few bucks and you got one. There’re no restrictions on buying knives.
Guns, it’s well near impossible,” he says.
Constable Scott Mills of Toronto’s Crime Stoppers and his colleagues routinely
confiscate knives from high-school kids across the GTA.
It worries him.
“It’s a false sense of protection. Just because you’re holding [the
weapon] doesn’t mean you’ll be the one using it,” says Constable Mills,
who visits high schools and mentors at-risk students.
“We’ve got a cash-for-guns campaign, but nothing about knives.
Guns maybe are more sexy. The bottom line is a weapon is a weapon.” What’s
frightening is how easy it is to hide weapons at high schools, says Detective Constable
Chris Dodds, a board member of the Ontario Gang Investigators Association. He shows
up at police and school-administrator conferences with 65 weapons hidden under a
plain business suit to show how easy it is to enter a school armed and undetected.
Fifty of those weapons are knives, all seized from students by hall monitors, teachers,
principals and police in the GTA over the years. In his cache is a skinning knife
taken to school in a Grade 4 student’s jacket because it was “neat”
and a paring knife with a sheath left over from a schoolyard fight. Kids are even
getting butterfly knives at flea markets, despite their illicit status in the Criminal
Code, Det. Constable Dodds says.
Despite all this, Staff Insp. Raybould says a ban on knives is not logical and will
not solve the problem. If a criminal wants to hurt someone, he says, she or he is
going to do it with whatever weapon is available. “Don’t worry about the
weapon, go after the person who uses it,” Staff Insp. Raybould says. “If
a person chooses to harm themselves (and others) and go and commit a criminal offence,
we’ve got a place for them – it’s called jail. Put them away for 20 years.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Cotrim at his knife stall in the flea market says he checks identification
to make sure a buyer is 18 before selling a knife, though no identification is required
if a customer wants to buy a black steel baton like those carried by police. A kiosk
next to the Blades 4 You knife stall sells gruesome 10-inch blades, with no request
for identification anywhere in sight.
Mr. Cotrim’s boss, Tony Messina, says that “at least a dozen” kids
request illegal knives every Saturday or Sunday while his flea-market booth is open.
“There’s guys out there who’ll sell to everyone and anyone,” Mr.
Messina says. “I’ve got a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old at home. I’ve
got to sleep at night knowing I didn’t sell a knife to one of those kids who
go out and stab each other.”