Emerging Issues in Security

The Rise of Edged-Weapon Mass Attacks

A knife attack in China on May 28, 2017, left 2 dead and 18 wounded. Police say the 30-year-old man in their custody had a mental health history and attacked dozens of people along a roadway. Edged weapon attacks with mass casualties are more common in Asia because gun ownership is so limited. But in some recent cases in the United States, mass attackers have used knives and stabbing weapons to commit murder on or near college campuses.

knife edge weapon attack crime

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While a knife cannot cause the same massive loss of lives on a college campus as a semiautomatic handgun or assault rifle, it has become the weapon of choice for some perpetrators in their attacks.

In April 2013, a 20-year-old student at Lone Star Community College in Houston stabbed 14 people with a knife. All survived the attack from Dylan Quick, who said he had fantasized about killing people.

In May 2014, University of California (UC) Santa Barbara student Elliot Rodger killed 6 and injured 14 in the nearby neighborhood of Isla Vista. Rodger, 22, posted a series of chilling preattack videos on YouTube before acting out. He started by stabbing his three roommates to death, cutting each of their throats. He used a handgun to shoot three people to death and wounded several others with his gun and his car. He exchanged gunfire with the police and killed himself as they approached him after he crashed.

On November 28, 2016, the Ohio State University (OSU) was the scene of a mass attack, where the perpetrator used his car to ram 11 people and a knife to stab 2. None of the injuries were life-threatening and the attacker, Abdul Razak Ali Artan, 18, was killed by a responding OSU police officer.

On May 1, 2017, Kendrex J. White, a 21-year-old junior at the University of Texas—Austin, stabbed four people with a large bowie knife, killing one.

Campus police and college security experts say that knives are used in mass attacks because they are quiet, easy to conceal, don’t require any training or a permit or ammunition to use, and allow the attacker to get close to victims, which may be a primary goal. Concealed carry laws for knives vary from state to state and what could be perceived by most people as a construction knife on someone’s belt may be ignored in a way that a holstered gun certainly would not.

The erratic behavior, previous mental health history, or criminal history of some of these attackers makes it hard for them to legally acquire a firearm, so the knife becomes their next best choice. UC Santa Barbara attacker Elliot Rodger used both types of weapons, plus his car, like the Ohio State attacker. Workplace and school violence prevention experts debate the “copycat factor” and the local and national media’s role in publicizing these cases involving mass knife attacks.

Preventing these campus attacks will continue to require vigilance on the part of campus police and security officials. One of their best approaches is to gather third-party threats, made from potential attackers to other students, using tip lines, hot lines, and outreach to the campus community, to give concerned students the courage to report erratic or dangerous behaviors.