Calgary stabbings: How knife crime in Canada can cause 'moral panic'

Knife-related violent crime in Canada has surpassed violent crimes committed using other weapons, including guns, according to Statistics Canada. However, criminologists say proposals to ban certain knives is an impractical crime-fighting measure.
Police remove a body from the scene of a multiple fatal stabbing in northwest Calgary. Five people died from their injuries. Despite recent news coverage of stabbing sprees across Canada, knife-related violent crimes have remained steady for years and criminologists say banning certain types of knives would be impractical. (Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press)

What Calgary police chief Rick Hanson called the "worst mass murder" in the city’s history didn’t end at the barrel of a gun.

Instead, the 22-year-old suspect identified on Tuesday as Matthew de Grood is accused of entering the kitchen at a house party, taking “a large knife” and using it to fatally stab four men and one woman, all of whom were students in their 20s.

The scene was “horrific,” Hanson told reporters.

Matthew de Grood, the suspect in the killings of five people, graduated from the University of Calgary and was admitted to attend law school in the fall. (Facebook)

But as police continue to investigate, the tragedy was also a grave reminder that stabbings top the list when it comes to violent crime in the country, with Statistics Canada reporting in 2008 that one-third of homicides or attempted murders involved knives — more than any other type of weapon, including firearms.

The attack at the house party came the same day that four shoppers in Regina were stabbed at a mall, a 17-year-old student was stabbed at a Brampton, Ont., high school and a week after a 47-year-old man was charged in the stabbings of four ex-coworkers at a Toronto office.

As details emerged about the Calgary slayings, social media users anticipated swift legislative action.

“About time to ban assault knives!” one person tweeted, linking to the Calgary story.

Another Twitter user questioned whether a “ban all the knives campaign” was forthcoming.

Criminologists say neither scenario is likely.

'Moral panic'

"I call it moral panic,” said Janne Holmgren, director for the Centre for Criminology and Justice Research at Mount Royal University. “Sometimes fear drives a lot of legislation, unfortunately.”

Saskatoon Police Chief Clive Weighill has for years pushed for police throughout Saskatchewan to be granted powers to be able to seize knives from people.

“People can walk around … carrying a machete, and an officer can't do anything about it unless someone walks up and threatens someone,” Weighill said in an interview with The Star Phoenix newspaper in 2010.

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      Edmonton, facing a rising homicide rate in 2011, declared that summer it would ban the sale of dangerous knives.

      It was a bid to take away “edged weapons” accounting for half of the city’s homicides, but it was also brushed aside as an impractical crime-fighting measure that would be a headache to enforce.

      The conversations gained some momentum in February, when 29-year-old Jayme Pasieka was arrested following a stabbing spree at a Loblaw’s warehouse that killed two people and wounded four others.

      Like that incident, the recent Calgary attack may give the knife-banning issue more momentum, according to Edmonton criminal lawyer Brian Hurley.

      “You get a horrendous episode like this, and there’s a desire to fix it,” Hurley said.

      “But I don’t see knife legislation as being practical in these circumstances,” he added.

      According to Statistics Canada’s 2008 data, knives were used against six per cent of victims of violent crime that year and firearms were used against two per cent of victims.

      Edmonton proposed ban 'fizzled'

      Viewed another way, Hurley said, those figures “might speak well for gun control” more than pointing to some kind of worrisome trend about more Canadian offenders reaching for knives.

      Would you ever have a ban that says you’re not allowed to have knives in your kitchen? Nobody would think about that for a minute- Yvon Dandurand, criminology professor

      Hurley said the legislation pitched in 2011 by Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel would have targeted pawn shops and resellers of items such as “swords or daggers,” but that “it’s very difficult to make a distinction to try to discern what would be legal and what isn’t.”

      The Edmonton proposal “fizzled” soon after, Hurley said.

      Canada already outlaws certain knives — such as spring-activated blades or brass-knuckle blades — as prohibited weapons under the criminal code.

      “There are also dispositions in the criminal code about carrying a concealed weapon, and some knives can be considered a concealed weapon,” said Yvon Dandurand, a criminology professor at the University of the Fraser Valley.

      In the case of the Calgary stabbings, police said the suspect brought an “instrument” into the house but allegedly took the murder weapon from the kitchen during the party.

      “Would you ever have a ban that says you’re not allowed to have knives in your kitchen? Nobody would think about that for a minute,” Dandurand said.

      Number of stabbings stable for years

      He noted that the number of stabbing deaths in Canada has actually remained stable, at around 30 per cent of all homicides between 2008-12.

      “If you’re a member of the public and you look at this one week, all of a sudden you think people aren’t using guns, they’re using knives instead. It’s perception. There is no trend here.”

      Latest stabbing statistics show slight decrease

      • 201 stabbings in 2008 (611 homicides total)
      • 210 stabbings in 2009 (610 homicides total)
      • 165 stabbings in 2010 (554 homicides total)
      • 204 stabbings in 2011 (598 homicides total)
      • 164 stabbings in 2012 (543 homicides total)

      - Statistics Canada

      Rather than trying to prevent knives from existing, he said enforcement could come in the form of barring knives from certain establishments. Working out the logistics would still be tricky, however.

      In 2011, the Quebec provincial legislators put the kirpan — a small ceremonial dagger — in its crosshairs, voting to ban the religious article worn by Sikh men from the Quebec National Assembly.

      The controversial vote ignited a national debate about religious freedoms.

      “You could say no knives allowed in bars, but that would mean exceptions for people who run the bar and slice the lemon that goes in your drink,” Dandurand said. “It’s not so easy.”

      Kevin Kent, owner of Knifewear, a Calgary shop that sells handmade Japanese chefs knives, said he supports Canada’s gun restrictions and wouldn’t be opposed to knife regulation “as long as it makes sense.”

      “Sadly, it’s impossible to make society completely safe in any way,” he said.

      Holmgren, the criminology professor with Mount Royal, agreed that anything can become a weapon if placed in the wrong hands.

      Even Statistics Canada lumped other cutting instruments such as broken bottles, screwdrivers and scissors into the “knife” category.

      “Instead of focusing so much on the weapons issue being used, maybe a better way to look at it is to think about addiction issues, alcoholism, drug abuse. That’s what drives crimes,” Holmgren said. “It’s not your drawer of knives.”


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