Despite a much-touted reduction in shootings in Boston, police are now confronting a troubling rise in the number of stabbings, which have jumped 10 percent over the same period last year and are on track to reach their highest point in four years.
Savvy criminals, aware of the tougher punishments levied for gun violations, have begun wielding blades instead, Boston law enforcement officials believe.
Gangs are instructing members to carry knives rather than risk an 18-month minimum sentence for possessing an unlawful firearm, Superintendent Daniel P. Linskey said, and more young people are carrying the weapons for protection, then using them to hurt rivals during fights.
"Carrying a knife is not going to expose anyone to a minimum of 18 months or beyond," said Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley. "And they're more easily accessible, too. You can pick up a knife at an army-navy store, or mom-and-pop variety store."
Police reported 350 stabbings from Jan. 1 to Sept. 10, which was 10 percent more than in the same period last year. Shootings, meanwhile, plunged nearly 18 percent, from 283 to 233 for the same time period. The number of stabbings through Aug. 26, the latest date for which year-to-year comparisons were available, is at the highest level since 2004.
"It's certainly a cause for concern," Conley said. "It takes a lot of inhumanity to plunge a knife into another human being. It's frightening to think it's trending upwards."
Most of the city's homicides are still caused by guns. Of the 49 homicides so far this year, 38 were shootings, and six were stabbings. And 26 percent of all 2007 stabbings occurred during domestic disputes. But with more people apparently carrying knives on the street, Linskey said, officers are worried that fights that once might have ended with a few punches and a bruised ego could become more serious.
"It's clear that minor altercations, when someone has a knife, will escalate," he said. "When you don't have a knife, you walk away, and five minutes later you realize it was just a punch in the face. Now, they have a knife, and they react very quickly."
In July, four people were stabbed, including a 15-year-old girl, during a fight after a house party in Mattapan, according to a police report. All of the victims survived. No arrests have been made, and police said they are still investigating the stabbings.
The girl, whose 18-year-old brother was stabbed in the hand during the fight, said she was in the hospital about a week and lost so much blood she is still taking iron supplements. She asked that her name be withheld because she is afraid of retribution.
The girl said she was attacked by about 10 other girls, who began kicking and punching her outside the house where the party was held on Woodruff Way. The fight was sparked when the group of girls became angry after the host of the party, held in memory of a 2006 homicide victim, tried to send everyone home.
The girl said she began fighting with the group after they assaulted her brother, who had come to pick her up.
After the attack, she staggered away to find her brother, unaware of how injured she was. A concerned neighbor told her she was bleeding heavily from the face. When the ambulance arrived, emergency workers told her she had been slashed across the face, and stabbed in her arm and under her armpit.
"I think it's crazy," she said in a telephone interview last week. "To think that people would stab people over stupid things."
In early 2006, after Boston saw its 2005 murder rate spike to a 10-year high of 75, the state toughened sentencing laws for gun charges, raising the minimum sentence for carrying an unlawful firearm from one year to 18 months. If the gun was loaded, the perpetrator could receive two more years in prison. Criminals were quick to adapt, said Jorge Martinez, executive director of Project Right, a nonprofit organization in the Grove Hall section of Roxbury.
"These guys are not stupid," he said. "Of course, you're not going to be walking around with a gun. The weapon of choice would be your knife. You get caught, you just get it taken away from you."
About six years ago, Martinez helped Conley, who was then a city councilman, draft an ordinance that would outlaw street sales of knives. Conley also introduced an ordinance making it illegal to carry knives longer than 2 1/2 inches.
But that ordinance is confusing, Linskey said. Even if officers find someone with a knife, they might not be able to confiscate it if the person using the knife says it is for hunting, fishing, or other recreation or if the person identifies himself as a chef or as involved in another trade that requires carrying a sharp object, he said.
State law bans carrying knives that can be drawn to a locked position or have a double edge. It also bans knives with an automatic spring release through which the blade is released from the handle and is over 1 1/2 inches long. The law also forbids carrying throwing stars and nunchucks, but does not regulate the size of a knife that is not a switchblade, Linskey said, adding that it might be time to update the law.
"You can carry a machete or a sword, and it's no crime," he said.
Maria Cramer can be reached at email@example.com.