State lawmakers are bringing knives to the gunfight.
Expanding the battle over the right to bear arms, U.S. legislatures that relaxed laws after the gun lobby’s decades-long push are now loosening restrictions on switchblades, dirks, daggers and poignards.
The charge is being led by a group whose leadership includes a wilderness-survival entrepreneur, a National Rifle Association board member and a “Joy of Cooking” co-author who travels with a 7-inch Santoku knife for slicing thyme-stuffed pork loin roasted on a spit over a campfire.
Called Knife Rights, the group claims support not only from Republicans, but also from urban Democrats concerned that the laws are used to target blacks and Latinos. Since 2010, it’s helped roll back bans in nine states and is lobbying legislatures in a dozen more.
“We call it the second front in defense of the Second Amendment,” said Todd Rathner, director of legislative affairs and sole paid lobbyist for the Gilbert, Arizona-based group.
On April 29, a Texas legislative committee heard testimony on a bill that would repeal a ban on daggers, swords, spears and the Bowie knife, a blade inspired by a defender of the Alamo.
“I don’t see knives posing that big of a danger to the public,” Representative Harold Dutton Jr., who sponsored the bill, said in an interview. “Now that we’re going to let everybody have a gun, I think we ought to set knives free.”
Dutton, a black Democrat from Houston, sees knife laws as a threat to civil rights.
“It is another one of those things that helps establish probable cause for a policeman to stop you,” he said.
Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old Baltimore man whose April death in police custody ignited riots, was arrested after police said they noticed a knife inside his pants.
Law-enforcement officers are less enthusiastic about ending restrictions.
“There’s a time and a place for knives,” said Sean Mannix, police chief in Cedar Park, Texas, and chairman of the Texas Police Chiefs Association’s legislative committee. “When you start talking about weapons with 12-inch blades like bayonets and things like that, there’s just no good reason for people to carry that in public -- and it’s alarming to folks.”
The bill remains in a House of Representatives committee.
Almost half of U.S. states regulate switchblade knives, whether by a limit on blade length or an outright ban, according to Knife Rights. Many of those also regulate other types of knives deemed dangerous. Cities have their own regulations, leaving a patchwork of rules that critics say confuses knife owners.
Knife Rights argues that Americans have a right to slice.
The group began in 2006 after Doug Ritter, a manufacturer of survival kits, and Ethan Becker, who oversees the cookbook his grandmother wrote in 1931, found common ground over a belief that bans were anachronistic.
Becker, a Paris-trained chef, has had a lifelong fascination with knives, designing and manufacturing them. He agreed to fund the group.
Four years later, Ritter met Rathner at an NRA board meeting. Rathner, a board member for the gun-rights group, had recently pushed Arizona’s “constitutional carry” law, which let citizens tote firearms openly without a permit. A decade earlier, he had encouraged the state to enact a so-called pre-emption law that prohibited cities from enacting their own restrictions.
“I said, ‘Let’s try to enact knife pre-emption in Arizona and see if we can make it stick,’” Rathner said.
It stuck: In 2010, then-governor Jan Brewer signed the nation’s first such measure.
That same year, they persuaded New Hampshire to lift its ban on switchblades and other knives. In 2011, they got Utah to enact a pre-emption law.
“From there, we put together a strategy to start hitting as many states as possible,” Rathner said.
Knife Rights, which reported taking in $217,000 in 2012, receives support from individual donors and manufacturers such as Oregon-based Benchmade Knife Co. Its board includes Peter Brownell, chief executive officer of Brownells Inc., a closely held firm based in Montezuma, Iowa, that’s one of the nation’s largest suppliers of gun accessories and ammunition.
Thanks to the group, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin lawmakers are considering lifting or loosening bans on knives. Michigan, South Carolina, Texas and Vermont, are considering pre-emption bills.
The right to bear knives isn’t a familiar concept even though millions own blades that could be considered illegal for cooking, whittling or working in the garden.
They’re the second-deadliest weapon behind guns in the U.S. In 2013, almost 1,500 people were killed by “cutting instruments,” according to figures from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Almost 8,500 were killed with firearms.
Blades are among the oldest weapons, with some dating to the Stone Age. Many modern restrictions are rooted in Reconstruction and were designed to keep weapons from newly freed slaves, according to David Kopel, a Denver University law professor who has studied the Second Amendment as it relates to knives.
After the 1957 Broadway musical ‘‘West Side Story’’ featured switchblade-wielding teenage gangs rumbling under a highway, Congress in 1958 banned interstate commerce of the knife and several states enacted their own bans.
In 2014, Knife Rights successfully repealed Tennessee’s prohibition on knives with blades longer than 4 inches that were carried with “intent to go armed.” Becker, who lives south of Knoxville in the Smoky Mountains, was relieved to see it go.
The chef often carries a traveling cooking bag that contains a whisk, tea towels, a zester and his favorite knife. He deploys his utensils to prepare recipes on the road.
Before Tennessee’s repeal, Becker said he could have been arrested for carrying his beloved Santoku.
“Knives are just too damn useful for too many people, and to me it’s all just so silly,” he said.