Virginia's General Assembly has finally purged the remnants of gun control from its books. The meaningless one-gun-a-month purchase restriction was repealed last session, and two years ago, Gov. Bob McDonnell signed a law granting concealed-carry permit holders permission to eat in restaurants that serve alcohol. Now it's time for lawmakers to fix the state's knife laws that are so irrational, they make walking around with a box cutter in one's pocket a crime punishable by a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
The need for change is real. In the late 1990s, a man was convicted in Richmond for driving with a common steak knife under his car seat. He wasn't a thief; he threatened no one. A police search found the small, plastic-handled blade next to a shirt, boots, a cooler, beer and "other trash" that were to be used on a fishing trip. The man got lucky, as the Court of Appeals ultimately reversed the conviction after observing that the steak knife "in fact has the appearance and characteristics of an ordinary household steak knife."
Such rulings are premised on the interpretation of an Old Dominion statute outlawing the concealed carry of any "dirk, bowie knife ... or weapon of like kind." This language has been on the books since 1849, yet the terms are so vague that court rulings on the topic frequently resort to the use of photographs to make their point. Even the appellate bench finds the law troublesome. "Although framed in legalese, essentially, like the character portrayed by Paul Hogan in the film 'Crocodile Dundee,' we find ourselves repeatedly posing the question in these cases, 'You call that a knife?' and occasionally agreeing; 'Now THAT'S a knife?' " Judge Robert J. Humphreys explained in a dissent to a 2009 case.
Neither police nor the public has any way to know what's legal and what's not legal because the final call is left to the whim of judges who can't even agree among themselves. In 2001, the state Supreme Court upheld a ruling that box cutters fell under the concealed-weapons ban, then decided the opposite in a 2007 ruling. The only part of the law that is well-defined is the prohibition on nunchaku and throwing stars - no doubt protecting the residents of the commonwealth from an outbreak of ninja attacks.
The rest of the statute remains unconscionably and unconstitutionally vague, serving little purpose. At the very least, the General Assembly has a duty to update the law so that concealed-carry permit holders are not put in the absurd position of being arrested for possession of a steak knife in one pocket while lawfully carrying a far more deadly pistol in the other.
Virginia is a pro-gun state, but its knife statute provides a glimpse at how irrational gun laws might have looked had the Second Amendment not spelled out an explicit protection for the right to keep and bear arms. The same principle ought to be applied to other, less dangerous tools used for self-protection.
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