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Home | Blog | The Right to Own and Bear Switchblades

The Right to Own and Bear Switchblades

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Tags Legal SystemU.S. HistoryPolitical Theory

01/30/2017

The legislature of the State of Colorado is considering ending its longtime ban on switchblades. You read that right. In a state where pretty much anyone without a criminal record can purchase a hand gun — and where homicide rates are quite low, mind you — switchblades are verboten. 

Meanwhile, in Congress, The Knife Owners' Protection Act has been introduced, an an effort to repeal federal laws against the manufacture or distribution for switchblade knives. Specifically,  15 U.S. Code § 1242-1243 currently state

Whoever knowingly introduces, or manufactures for introduction, into interstate commerce, or transports or distributes in interstate commerce, any switchblade knife, shall be fined not more than $2,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.

Whoever, within any Territory or possession of the United States, within Indian country ... or within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States ... manufactures, sells, or possesses any switchblade knife, shall be fined not more than $2,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.

In other words, if you carry a switchblade over state lines, you may find yourself facing a potential prison term of five years. 

Of course, once you arrive at your destination, you may still face state laws banning switchblades. 

In Colorado, for instance, possessing "a blackjack, gas gun, metallic knuckles, gravity knife, or switchblade knife" (first offense) is a Class 5 felony, which can bring up to three years in prison. A second offense can bring up to six years in prison. 

Moreover, many of these state laws are broadly defined, so they are often made by law enforcement officials to apply to any knife that can be operated with one hand. New York state has used laws like these to prosecute non-violent "offenders" for decades. 

The whole affair helps to highlight the utter capriciousness and ignorance which are involved in passing laws, especially ones geared toward imposing prohibitions and draconian prison terms. 

Why are these knives illegal? 

All the evidence points toward lawmakers targeting these sorts of knives because of Hollywood movies and popular culture. 

The Colorado ban dates to 1963, and the federal "Switchblade Knife Act" was passed in 1958. It is not a coincidence that these laws came in the wake of numerous notable Hollywood movies that featured switchblades, including Rebel Without a Cause, Crime in the Streets, The Delinquents, and West Side Story. 

At the time, the films promoted a moral panic among "respectable" citizens who came to believe that switchblades were fueling gangland activity. Even worse was the fact that many of these supposed gangsters were swarthy ethnics like the children of Italian and Puerto Rican immigrants. 

There were, of course,  no studies as to the actual effects of switchblades, their relative deadliness, who was using them, or how they were used. The passage of these laws has never been shown to have any impact whatsoever on violent crime or homicide. We do know, however, that the ban provides another means for law enforcement to harass and prosecute citizens who have committed no actual property crime or violent crime. The NYPD, for example bragged about seizing $18,000 from a man with no probable cause other than the fact he had an illegal "gravity knife."  Perhaps more infamously, the Baltimore police were forced to admit the only justification they had for arresting Freddie Gray — who later died in police custody — was a claim that he carried an illegal switchblade.

Thus, these laws were passed in the absence of any evidence that they actually improved public safety. They were passed because some voters and politicians watched some Hollywood movies, and that was that. Anyone familiar with the legislative process will not be shocked by this, but this method of lawmaking certainly isn't what's taught in high school civics. 

As a motivation for federal and state legislation carrying stiff prison terms, this would strike us as unprecedented in its absurdity were it not for the fact that other federal prohibitions have been strengthened by tragi-comic propaganda like Reefer Madness which contends that smoking a few marijuana joints turns women into prostitutes and men into cold-blooded killers. 

Even today, in addition to the federal laws, 14 states still ban switchblades, which means citizens continue to be open to abuses from government officials looking to rough up some local citizens or seize some easy cash. 

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
Image source: Natalie Stat www.flickr.com/photos/nataliestat/
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