Acid attacks have become a daily occurrence in the UK, with two taking place on the streets of Britain’s towns and cities every 24 hours. But while corrosive liquids have long been used in revenge attacks, and have more recently played a role in alleged hate crime incidents targeting the Muslim community, a growing body of evidence suggests street gangs are increasingly using acid as a new weapon of choice. Legal to carry and therefore much less risky to be caught in possession of than a gun or a knife, corrosive liquids make a cheap and extremely effective tool for gang members.
As well as being used in street crimes such as muggings and moped theft, which has risen in London to the degree that Deliveroo has been forced to hire 50 new safety workers for its drivers, would-be gangsters are reportedly being commanded to douse innocent members of the public with acid as part of twisted initiation rituals. Apparently caring little for the devastating effect an acid attack can have on a victim’s life, London gang members are also said to be using corrosive liquids to settle scores with rivals. Other criminals are using the fear generated by acid attacks across Britain to their advantage by launching fake attacks with bottles containing water.
Despite the horrific uptick in the frequency of acid attacks in the UK over the past 12 months, anybody can still walk into a hardware store or supermarket and buy bleach or drain cleaning products that contain acid, regardless of their age or background. In a terrifying example of just how destructive these products can be, a five-year-old boy was left scarred for life in 2012 when liquid from a bottle of drain cleaner leaked onto the floor in the flat above his bedroom, burned through the ceiling and dripped onto his face.
While the UK government has discussed restricting who can purchase products that contain potentially harmful acids, police chiefs have warned that it is virtually impossible to ban the sale of all corrosive substances, as so many household products contain them. Despite this, campaigners are demanding action. A petition calling for the prohibition of the sale of acid to people who do not hold a licence to possess and use corrosive liquids has attracted nearly 500,000 signatures, while hundreds of delivery drivers who use mopeds and motorcycles last month held a protest in central London after one of their colleagues was injured in an acid attack. Taking matters into their own hands, some retailers have started placing their own restrictions on who they are willing to sell corrosive liquids to, with shop owners in London banning sales of acid to people under the age of 21.
Arbitrary shop bans applied unevenly in different parts of the country will unfortunately do little to reverse the increasing number of acid attacks taking place in the UK, a trend that now appears to be growing thanks in part to the media coverage it generates. As well as being sold freely in shops on almost every high street across the country, corrosive liquids can also be easily purchased online. While it may well be difficult to ban the sale of every single household product that contains some form of corrosive substance, the British government must act now to take the most harmful forms of acid off Britain’s streets.
As well as making it a legal requirement that anybody who wishes to purchase the most caustic types of acid must hold a licence to be able to do so, UK lawmakers should also ban the carrying of corrosive substances entirely. Few people have a legitimate reason to be in possession of acid, particularly when it has been decanted into a squeezable soft drinks bottle. In much the same way as anybody can be prosecuted for carrying a knife without good reason, the possession of corrosive substances must be completely outlawed, and punished by a lengthy custodial sentence. The time to act is now. The longer these attacks are allowed to continue, the more engrained the use of acid as a weapon will become in UK gang culture.
Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) this week published new sentencing guidelines on acid attacks ahead of the completion of a wider review of guidance on offensive weapons that is already underway. Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders told London’s Evening Standard that judges will now be able to jail anybody found to be carrying a corrosive substance without good reason for up to four years, and will have the option to pass down a life sentence to a suspect who carries out an attack, even when no harm is caused to the intended victim.
These new sentencing guidelines are a step in the right direction, but do nothing to restrict the supply of corrosive liquids to those who would use them to do others harm. While it is of course right that those convicted of carrying acid or committing an attack with corrosive liquids are sent to prison for a long time, the problem will remain until meaningful restrictions are placed on the sale of the products criminals use to commit these heinous offences. Unfortunately, it is likely that the recent spate of acid attacks in the UK will continue as long as corrosive liquids are freely available from high street retailers and online, regardless of the penalties put in place to prevent them.