There's no need for feds to twiddle with knife law

June 26, 2009 

Surely, like me, you are horrified by the skyrocketing number of drive-by knife attacks in Alaska and across our great land.

Surely, like me, you are resolved to do something about stopping the bloody assaults on ordinary citizens.

Wait, you mean you haven't heard of the carnage? Sleep well. Our friends at the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection are on the job. To save us, they have decided the thing to do is reclassify some non-switchblade knives as switchblades to block their importation. Mind you, states have their own knife laws, but federal law and federal whim govern import and transportation across state lines.

Unfortunately, your folding knife, the one that can be opened with one hand, the one you use for fishing, hunting, opening envelopes and a million other things, also could be affected by the proposed changes and banned from importation. Worse, many states and localities depend on federal law and regulations to set their own rules.

The American Knife & Tool Institute says about 36 million users eventually could be subject to new restrictions in the government's broadly worded "proposed revocation" of existing regulations.

The knives that have the federales in a blue snit boast "assisted-opening blades."

They are ordinary-looking pocket knives, but when the user starts to deploy the blade, the mainspring takes over and snaps it open, a boon for somebody with only one free hand.

Under federal law dating from 1958, when hoodlums with greasy ducktails ruled the silver screen and flicked open their knives with insolent grins in productions such as "High School Confidential," "Rebel Without a Cause" and "West Side Story," stirring an anti-switchblade frenzy, there was a clear and simple federal definition for an automatic knife. There still is.

Switchblades are opened "by hand pressure applied to a button or other device in the handle of the knife, or ... by operation of inertia, gravity, or both." Simple enough.

That law, spurred by a frothing tabloid press, oddly enough was opposed back then by the departments of Justice and Commerce as too costly and cumbersome. It made it through Congress with the likes of Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver, a Democrat (surprise!) promoting it in what turned out to be a knock-down, drag-out fight.

Bernard Levine, a noted knife authority, pointed out in a 1990 "Knifeworld" article that one of the law's main proponents, Rep. Sidney Yates of Illinois, another Democrat (surprise!), warned, "Vicious fantasies of omnipotence, idolatry ... barbaric and sadistic atrocities, and monstrous violations of accepted values spring from cult of the weapon and the switchblade knife is included in this.

"Minus switchblade knives and the distorted feeling of power they beget -- power that is swaggering, reckless, and itching to express itself in violence -- our delinquent adolescents would be short of one of their most potent means of incitement to crime."

Holy cow! Nothing like reasoned debate.

The Bureau of Customs and Border Protection well knows the 51-year-old definition and some time ago ruled assisted-opening knives were not switchblades, as they do not in any way imaginable meet the criteria.

Why is it trying to change its mind now in an expedited fashion and why is it ignoring the existing definition? It certainly cannot be because the knives suddenly present a danger.

For 2007, the last year for which complete data exists, the Department of Justice's "Crime in the United States" shows knives were used in only 8.3 percent of robberies, 18.8 percent of aggravated assaults and in 1,796 murders, the least since 2003. You have to wonder how may of those crimes were committed with ordinary kitchen knives.

In Alaska, there were 43 murders in 2007. Only five were committed with knives.

It is a mystery why government do-gooders slap together nonsensical laws, rules and regulations that inconvenience and affect only the law-abiding. In this case, the bureau is being silly in trying to reverse its decision about assisted-opening knives. What with drugs, bombs and who-knows-what-else coming across the border, why is it making the effort to put the kibosh on a popular, useful tool?

Write congressmen and senators. Complain. Some 233 years ago a group of men got together and detailed their complaints against their English master. They said he "sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance. ..."

The more things change, sadly; the more they stay the same.

Paul Jenkins is an independent journalist and former editor of the Voice of The Times.

Anchorage Daily News is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service