Hunters, whittlers and Boy Scouts, beware - your knives may soon be on the government’s chopping block.
The Obama administration wants to expand the 50-year-old ban on importing “switchblades” to include folding knives that can be opened with one hand, stirring fears the government may on the path to outlawing most pocket knives.
Critics, including U.S. knife manufacturers and collectors, the National Rifle Association, sportsmen’s groups and a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, say the rule change proposed by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) would rewrite U.S. law defining what constitutes a switchblade and potentially make de facto criminals of the estimated 35 million Americans who use folding knives.
“Boy Scout knives, Swiss Army knives - the most basic of knives can be opened one-handed if you know what you are doing,” said Doug Ritter, executive director of Knife Rights, an advocacy group fighting to defeat the measure.
“The outrage is gaining steam,” he said.
Customs officials dismiss fears that the new language will outlaw ordinary pocket knives, saying the change was issued to clear up conflicting guidelines for border agents about what constitutes an illegal switchblade that cannot be imported into the United States. The rule could be imposed within 30 days if not blocked.
A review of case law and “in consideration of the health and public safety concerns raised by such importations” prompted the agency to revoke the ruling that allowed the importing of knives with spring- and release-assisted opening mechanisms, CBP spokeswoman Jenny L. Burke said.
Customs officials argue the rule deals only with imported merchandise, and thus does not affect knives already in the country or that are manufactured domestically.
The rule change would affect the interpretation of the Switchblade Knife Act of 1958, which defined a “switchblade” as any knife having a blade that opens automatically by hand pressure applied to a button or other device in the handle, or by operation of inertia or gravity.
The new definition would include any spring-assisted or one-handed-opening knife.
The 1958 law bans the possession of switchblades on federal lands and prohibits the mailing or sale of switchblades across state lines. It does not mandate prohibition within states and localities, though a number of states, including Maryland, have passed their own statutes banning or limiting the possession and carrying of switchblades.
Possession of switchblades is legal in Virginia if not intended for sale.
Critics of the rule say that broadening the definition of switchblades in federal law would instantly make previously permitted knives illegal in states that have adopted the ban. Hunters and hikers who cross state lines with their knives in tow may find themselves guilty of a federal felony, they warn.
The bipartisan Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, boasting one of the largest memberships on Capitol Hill, last week sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who oversees CBP, urging her to quash the proposed rule change. The letter was signed by 61 Republican and 18 Democratic lawmakers.
“This classification could render millions of law-abiding knife owners in violation of the law and expose major market retailers, manufacturers, dealers and importers to possible federal felony charges, and could drive domestic manufacturers and importers out of business, potentially costing thousands of jobs,” said caucus member Rep. Robert E. Latta, Ohio Republican.
In much the same way that gun rights issues have cut across the partisan divide in Congress, the threat of a government knife grab has especially rankled members from Western and Southern states, regardless of their party.
Miss Napolitano has not responded, according to congressional staffers.
The knife lobby does not believe the agency’s assurances that the rule has only a narrow application.
“The language used … is so broad and uses virtually every term ever applied to any knife that opens with one hand. We fear that they are attempting to bypass the will of Congress and that once they succeed in getting assisted-openers defined as switchblades, they could move against all folding knives,” said the American Knife and Tool Institute, which represents knife manufacturers, distributors, retailers and custom-knife artisans.
Boy Scouts of America spokesman Deron Smith said he did not want to comment because he was not familiar with the details of the proposed rule. But he said the Boy Scout Handbook does include many references to pocket knives.
“Knives are a part of the scouting program,” Mr. Smith said. “We primarily stress safe knife usage and maintenance of knives. … We will just continue to stick to what’s in the handbook.”
The relatively quick pace of the rule-making process - a 30-day comment period that ended Monday, followed by a 30-day implementation schedule - has opponents looking to head off the measure in Congress.
Mr. Latta and Rep. Walt Minnick, Idaho Democrat, introduced legislation Tuesday that would block CBP from broadening the definition of switchblades.
The legislation was offered as an amendment to the appropriations bill for the Homeland Security Department, which is expected to come to the House floor soon.