Inside the Knife Rights Movement

Having gained so much ground in easing gun restrictions, conservatives now want to roll back limits on knives, which can be just as lethal.

National Journal
James Oliphant
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James Oliphant
March 26, 2014, 5:01 p.m.

This week, the Ten­ness­ee Gen­er­al As­sembly re­pealed the state’s long-stand­ing ban on switchblades, or, as their pur­vey­ors like to call them “auto­mat­ic knives.” It was one more vic­tory for the nas­cent knife-rights move­ment, a push to leg­al­ize deadly blades that’s oc­cur­ring mostly out of the main­stream eye.

The bill also does away with a lim­it on the length of a knife — as well as pree­mpts any city or town or­din­ance that reg­u­lates knives. It passed both houses over­whelm­ingly and likely will be signed in­to law by the state’s Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor, Bill Haslam. (So watch your­self the next time you an­ger someone in a Nashville honky-tonk.)

If you didn’t know that Ten­ness­ee, or any state for that mat­ter, banned switchblades, or that they’re now dubbed “auto­mat­ic” weapons be­cause they can be triggered with one hand by a single but­ton on the handle, that suits the knife-rights move­ment just fine. They’ve op­er­ated a largely un­der-the-radar cam­paign in friendly red states to open up the land­scape to more exot­ic bladed in­stru­ments.

The sim­il­ar­ity to the gun lobby isn’t ac­ci­dent­al. The most in­flu­en­tial or­gan­iz­a­tion ded­ic­ated to knife rights is pat­terned after the Na­tion­al Rifle As­so­ci­ation, al­though it doesn’t nearly have that group’s le­gis­lat­ive fire­power. But the move­ment is also a re­cog­ni­tion that, as gun ad­voc­ates score vic­tory after vic­tory at the state level (the Geor­gia Le­gis­lature this week passed a bill that would al­low guns to be car­ried in bars, schools, churches, and air­ports), the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment has nev­er been bet­ter for loosen­ing sim­il­ar re­stric­tions on knives.

“We are really re­writ­ing knife law in Amer­ica,” says Doug Ritter, the chair­man of Knife Rights.

Ritter, an Ari­zona journ­al­ist and out­doors­man, foun­ded Knife Rights in 2006 after he was riled by an art­icle in The Wall Street Journ­al that he felt un­fairly stig­mat­ized knives as a so­ci­et­al threat. “I ba­sic­ally had an epi­phany,” Ritter said. “There was not an NRA for knife own­ers.”

Knives, es­pe­cially switchblades, are in fact heav­ily reg­u­lated in many states and on the fed­er­al level with the Fed­er­al Switchblade Act, which bans the in­tro­duc­tion of those “auto­mat­ic” blades in­to in­ter­state com­merce. The fed­er­al act was passed in 1958, at the height of pub­lic fears over street toughs and ju­ven­ile de­lin­quency, as epi­tom­ized by movies such as The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause and mu­sic­als such as West Side Story.

The move­ment, Ritter says, came of age in 2009 when it beat back an at­tempt by the U.S. Cus­toms Ser­vice to ex­pand the defin­i­tion of what con­sti­tutes a switchblade for im­port­a­tion pur­poses to in­clude so-called tac­tic­al knives, small blades that can be opened with one hand, but that lack the trig­ger­ing mech­an­ism of switchblades. “Eighty per­cent of the knives sold in the U.S. could have been il­leg­al,” Ritter says.

The fol­low­ing year brought the push to pass “pree­mp­tion” laws at the state level, laws that would su­per­sede loc­al or­din­ances reg­u­lat­ing knives, as well as laws that would leg­al­ize the sale of switchblades with­in state lines. The ef­fort brought suc­cesses in states such as Alaska, Kan­sas, and In­di­ana. Ritter’s group also helped de­feat a bid by Nevada to ban knives longer than 2 inches.

“Count­ing Ten­ness­ee, we’ve passed 13 bills in 11 states in four years,” Ritter says. “That’s a pretty ad­mir­able re­cord.”

The group has also filed a civil-rights suit against New York City over its ef­forts to reg­u­late fold­ing pock­etknives as “grav­ity knives.” On the fed­er­al level, it helped spur a bill sponsored last year by Rep. Matt Sal­mon, R-Ar­iz., Ritter’s con­gress­man, that would al­low own­ers of “auto­mat­ic knives” to trans­port them from one state to an­oth­er  ithout vi­ol­at­ing fed­er­al law.

As with the NRA’s lob­by­ing ef­forts, much of the jus­ti­fic­a­tion for de­reg­u­la­tion is rooted in the Founders’ and mod­ern con­cepts of self-de­fense. Last fall, Dav­id Ko­pel, a well-known gun-rights ad­voc­ate and Second Amend­ment schol­ar, re­leased what was termed the first mod­ern ana­lys­is of wheth­er the Con­sti­tu­tion pro­tects knives along with guns. (It also may have been the first law-re­view art­icle to quote the movie Cro­codile Dun­dee.)

The con­ser­vat­ive ar­gu­ment? The amend­ment refers simply to “arms,” not just fire­arms, and knives are “arms.” And also, just what do you think was on the end of those Re­volu­tion­ary War-era mus­kets?

Ritter freely con­cedes that, for now, his or­gan­iz­a­tion, which em­ploys just one state-level lob­by­ist, has con­fined its le­gis­lat­ive ef­forts to GOP-dom­in­ated states where they’re likely to re­ceive a warm re­cep­tion, but the idea, he says, is to build mo­mentum for for­ays in­to more hos­tile ter­rit­ory. It helps that there’s no or­gan­ized op­pos­i­tion, no Brady Cam­paign for knives, no “knife con­trol” move­ment. Lib­er­al pun­dit Al Sharpton drew some con­ser­vat­ive ire last year when he sug­ges­ted reg­u­lat­ing knives along with guns — but for the most part, pro­gress­ives have been si­lent on the is­sue.

Once there’s enough grass­roots mo­mentum at the state level, Ritter says, the goal will be to re­peal the fed­er­al switchblade act. “It’s a lot easi­er than to go to Con­gress and say, ‘Why does this ana­chron­ism ex­ist?’ ” he says. “The gangs from West Side Story are all dead!”

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