Knives, guns and teens
There has been a flurry of headlines in the press this week reporting statistics which, according to the Press Association, reveal "a massive rise in child stab victims."
Given the paucity of hard facts to back up the claims that knife crime is soaring, I was hopeful that these new numbers would shed some light on what has become a matter of huge public and political concern.
The data, it turns out, was actually published last month by the Health Secretary following a Parliamentary Question.
It relates to youngsters admitted to hospital in England with stab wounds. And it won't surprise many to learn that the numbers do indeed illustrate a story of rising knife injuries involving children.
But the MP who asked about teenage stab wounds also asked about gunshot wounds. And here I found a rather different story - although it seems in our current moral panic about teenage violence, few are interested in hearing it.
No, this week's headlines have focused solely on the stab wounds, chiefly those involving under-16s.
Between the years 2002-3 and 2006-7, the number of these children admitted to hospital with knife wounds in England "almost doubled" we are told. From 95 cases to 179. A rise of 88%.
However, over the same period, the numbers of under-16s admitted to hospital with gunshot wounds has gone down from 253 to 181. A fall of 68%.*
So, 84 more children were admitted with stab injuries than five years earlier. But 72 fewer children were admitted with gunshot injuries.
If no distinction is made between knife and gun injuries, the headline might read "teen violence stable."
Now, every one of those hospital emergencies is an appalling incident. But if we are serious about tackling the problem of juvenile violence, it makes sense to understand what it is we are dealing with.
A trawl through the hospital figures for all age groups strongly suggests that knife crime is rising: a total of 5,700 admissions for "assault by sharp object" in 2007 compared with just under 4,000 a decade earlier.
Ninety percent of the victims are men and over 40% occur on a Saturday or Sunday night. There is more than a whiff of alcohol in these figures.
Given the particular anxiety over youngsters with knives, I looked at the most recent data for under-16s and spotted something quite surprising. Of those 179 children admitted to hospital last year, 72 or 40% were in London.
Knife fights appear to be a particular and growing problem in the capital. Juvenile disputes are too often resolved with a blade.
It is a different story in the North West of England. In Manchester and Liverpool it is gunshot wounds that the hospitals are predominantly dealing with.
Between 2002-3 and 2006-7, London doctors treated 33 children with wounds from firearms. In the North West, medics patched up an astonishing 251.
During the same period, London A & E departments admitted 225 children with stab wounds compared with 117 in the North West.
What do we conclude from all this? Well, I don't think these figures tell a story of increasingly ferocious juvenile violence sweeping the land. Instead, they offer clues to the nature of predominantly urban gang culture.
If you don't believe me, consider this. In 2002-3, not one school child was treated for a stab wound anywhere in central and south east England outside London. How many victims were there in this large and populous region last year? None.
*UPDATE 13:00: Sorry - there is one typo to correct in this. The percentage fall in gunshot wounds should be 28% not 68%. The numbers, however, are correct.