A sun-splashed day in Austin turned bloody on May 1 when a University of Texas student whipped out a bowie knife and went on a campus rampage. A witness said she saw the 21-year-old assailant “just walking calmly with the knife to his side” before coming up behind one victim, grabbing him by the shoulder and plunging the knife “all the way in.”
By the time the carnage ended, a freshman was dead and three other students were wounded. The university’s president closed the school for the day. “Our hearts are broken,” he said.
At virtually the same time, a legislative effort was under way at the state Capitol across town to liberalize Texas’ knife laws. Yet public horror over the violence didn’t matter. Within days, an amended version of the bill cleared the legislature’s lower chamber and advanced – illustrating the power of a seemingly unstoppable nationwide movement to end restrictions on knives.
Since its formation in 2006, an advocacy group called Knife Rights has won repeal or reform of 23 knife-restrictive laws in 17 states, while defeating proposed restrictions in seven more. In March, Colorado’s Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper, signed a law allowing switchblades and so-called gravity knives that open easily with a downward flick. This month Georgia’s Republican governor, Nathan Deal, also signed a knife reform bill. And a reform law easing restrictions on switchblades awaits the governor’s signature in Illinois.
While maintaining that knives are “arms” protected by the Second Amendment, the campaign also has a practical goal in the workplace: an end to laws that effectively criminalize tools that vast numbers of Americans carry with them to work as electricians, stagehands and other tradesmen – a fact that helps explain why the reforms usually enjoy union support.
There is a civil-rights aspect to reform too: Among minority populations in crime-worn cities, such laws can be abused in searches as pretexts for unjust arrests by police.
“This disproportionately effects people of color,” said Assemblyman Dan Quart, a Manhattan Democrat sponsoring knife reform legislation in New York state. “You’ve got cooks, chefs, workers with the Department of Education who use a knife to cut wire – these people are getting arrested. The laws are absurd and something has to be done.”
FBI knife-crime statistics suggest the reform wave has resulted in no increase in crime. Homicides involving a “knife or cutting instrument” fell to 1,567 in 2014 from 1,836 in 2009, the bureau says. In 2015, knives or cutting instruments accounted for 11.5 percent of homicides nationally, down from 13 percent in 2014. But the statistics are an imprecise proxy for gauging crimes with banned varieties of knives, because they lump together killings with all knives, legal or illegal.
Given that knives are a fact of American domestic life and varied in their uses – from those for butter and steak to large meat cleavers – knife laws can seem confusing. Some restrict the length of knives, but much of the current debate centers on switchblades or “gravity” knives, which can be closed and harmlessly concealed when not in use.
In 1958, after the movie “Rebel Without a Cause” and the musical “West Side Story” helped establish knives as a menace in the public imagination, Congress passed what’s known as the Federal Switchblade Act generally regulating the manufacture and interstate commerce of knives.
But states and localities also have great leeway in imposing restrictions. And in some places, you don’t have to be a Shark or a Jet ready to rumble to possess a knife that could fit the definition of illegal.
Age and wear can weaken the spring that holds a knife’s blade in its encasing handle, transforming a “legal” knife that can be opened only with effort into an “illegal” one that can be flicked open. In addition, a police officer with cunning can become practiced in flicking open older knives, creating pretexts for arrests during stop-and-frisk searches, some knife reform advocates say.
Doug Ritter, the founder and chief executive of Knife Rights, said he became galvanized over the issue in 2006 after reading what he felt was a distorted story about knives in the national press.
“The article was so over the top attacking so-called ‘tactical knives,’ in much the same way you see attacks on so-called ‘assault rifles,’” the Arizonan said. “I realized at that juncture there wasn’t an NRA for knife owners. When we started looking at knife law reform, there were about two-thirds of the states that had some manner of restriction, and there were significant restrictions in 25 states.”
Knife Rights began to chip away at those restrictions, lobbying to pass laws from Alaska to New Hampshire and stopping state proposals from Washington to Florida. The group has also labored to standardize statutes, so that one state law could replace a sometimes confusing hodgepodge of local restrictions.
But the successes of the movement are not unqualified. Municipalities generally have the power to pass their own ordinances so long as they do not conflict with state statutes. And as with gun laws, some cities have passed more restrictive laws. Philadelphia, for instance, bans carrying any knife, Ritter said, while restrictions on blade length are in effect in Chicago and Boston.
Generally speaking, opposition to knife law reform comes from police and prosecutors. Restrictive knife laws give cops and prosecutors wide discretion and help plump their crime fighting numbers, public defenders in New York City maintain.
“I don’t think they hate knives, per se,” said H. Clay Aalders, a Tennessee fishing guide who runs The Truth About Knives blog. “It just comes from the ingrained thinking from law enforcement and the DAs.”
Ritter says Knife Rights gets financial backing from the knife industry and smaller donors plus dues-paying members. The group also keeps some strange political bedfellows. It isn’t often the NRA, ACLU and NAACP come together to bring a knife to a political fight, but that’s what has happened in New York state.
Reformers say the police practice of “flicking” open knives to make them seem illegal is prevalent in New York City, where in some instances arrests have put working men in jail for carrying a daily tool they could well have bought at Home Depot.
“Our organization has represented thousands of clients who have gone to jail, been placed in handcuffs, for merely possessing a tool they bought in a hardware store,” said Martin LaFalce, a public defender with the Legal Aid Society in New York City. “This year, our investigators found 110 stores in Manhattan selling folding knives with locking blades – if they were found in our clients’ hands our clients would be arrested and charged with a crime.”
New York’s half-century-old ban on gravity knives is enforced robustly. A Village Voice analysis in 2014 found the prohibition had resulted in 60,000 prosecutions in the past 10 years. That ranked it among the top 10 most prosecuted crimes in New York, the Voice reported, noting that knives thus made up a large percentage of the weapons “taken off the street” during the years the NYPD pursued its controversial stop-and-frisk policy. The police “flick” test is the focus of a federal lawsuit knife reform advocates are pursuing in New York state.
For now, two Democratic heavyweights, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., stand in the way of reform. Vance’s office told RealClearInvestigations the laws in place are good ones and insisted innocent parties aren’t prosecuted.
“Blades which can easily be flicked open with one hand are dangerous weapons that do not belong on city streets and subways,” said Joan Vollero, the district attorney’s director of communications. “This is a public safety issue and law enforcement agencies around the state oppose this bill.”
Vollero added: “The Manhattan DA’s Office remains committed to investigating, and ultimately dismissing, cases where an individual appears to possess an illegal knife for an innocuous purpose, has no prior violent convictions, and does not otherwise pose a threat to public safety.”
Support for a knife reform measure sponsored by Assemblyman Quart was so deep that the vote on it in the state Senate in Albany last year was 62-1 in favor. But on New Year’s Eve, the governor vetoed it. While he said he agreed current law is “absurd and must be addressed,” his statement said the bill’s language was too vague. Quart believes the latest iteration, which was passed this month, answers the governor’s objections.
Regardless, Ritter is certain New York and those cities that remain committed to laws from the 1950s will soon accept reform.
“While it is frustrating for us, and a serious problem for those unfortunates caught up in this enforcement scheme, in the bigger picture it’s just a pothole on the road to ridding the country of knife restrictions that do nothing to prevent crime and only penalize law-abiding citizens.”
Correction: May 27, 2017, 4:15 PM Eastern
An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported a membership total for Knife Rights, an advocacy group. The group says it does not disclose its membership figures.