Opponents of the Obama administration’s plan to expand the definition of “switchblades” and block the importing of many common pocketknives suffered an early setback in Congress this week, but they vow the Capitol Hill knife fight isn’t over.
“Everyone from our first responders, law enforcement officials, Boy Scouts and hunters will be affected by this regulation,” said Rep. Bob Latta, Ohio Republican, after the House Rules Committee rejected his bill to block the change. “It is unacceptable to think that we as citizens cannot carry a pocketknife for work or recreation purposes.”
Mr. Latta, who has teamed up with Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick of Idaho to fight the measure, is currently exploring other legislative moves to stop the administration’s plan, said Latta spokesman David Popp.
The two lawmakers had submitted an amendment to a spending bill that would have blocked the new regulation, but it was rejected on procedural grounds.
Critics of the regulation - including U.S. knife manufacturers and collectors, the National Rifle Association, sportsmen’s groups and a bipartisan group of at least 79 House members - say it 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.
Opponents are in a race against time because of the quick pace of the rule-making process - a 30-day comment period that ended Monday, followed by a 30-day implementation schedule.
“We now move to the Senate side where we hope for better luck and have more time to prepare, coordinate with other groups and marshal our forces,” said Doug Ritter, executive director of Knife Rights Inc., an advocacy group fighting to defeat the measure.
The new knife rules proposed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) would affect the interpretation of the Switchblade Knife Act of 1958 to include any spring-assisted or one-handed-opening knife.
The law defines 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.
Customs officials dismiss fears that the new language will outlaw ordinary pocketknives, 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 “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 does not affect knives already in the country or that are manufactured domestically.
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 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, sent a letter to Department of 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.
In much the same way that gun rights issues have cut across the partisan divide in Congress, the threat of a knife grab by the government has especially rankled members from western and southern states, regardless of their party.