For 12 years, Doug Ritter has been crossing swords with anti-knife lawmakers and prosecutors, and he’s on something of a tear.
His organization, Knife Rights, has notched 29 legislative victories in 21 states in the past eight years as it seeks to protect the rights of knife owners, including last year’s repeals of switchblade bans in Colorado and Illinois enacted during the heyday of “West Side Story.”
“We’re often described by people as the NRA for knife owners,” Mr. Ritter said. “We’re obviously similar. We are both a civil rights and a Second Amendment organization.”
The issue of knife control may sound like small potatoes to Americans wrestling with mass shootings and gun restrictions, but Europe provides a case study on how limiting weapons can lead to crackdowns on pocketknives and switchblades, also known as automatic knives.
An Arizona-based survival gear specialist who also designs knives, Mr. Ritter said he grew concerned about U.S. restrictions on the ownership, sale and carrying of ordinary blades after traveling on business through Europe.
“European knife laws are, generally speaking, much more restrictive than in the U.S.,” he said. “One of the reasons I formed Knife Rights was that I had traveled in England and Europe, I had seen how restrictive their knife laws are and I didn’t want the U.S. to get there.”
The issue of knife control drew international attention in April after London Mayor Sadiq Khan tweeted in April that “there is never a reason to carry a knife” after banning the carrying of knives in response to an uptick of stabbings.
Fortunately for knife fans, the trend hasn’t caught on in America. “While Europe gets more restrictive, we’ve been going in the other direction,” Mr. Ritter said.
One reason is Knife Rights, whose mission is “to ensure a Sharper Future for owners of one of mankind’s oldest and most commonly used tools” and uphold the Second Amendment, which, Mr. Ritter argues, applies to knives as well as guns.
“As you will note, the Second Amendment doesn’t say ‘firearms’; it says ‘arms,’ ” he said.
He cited a 2013 article in the University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform authored by legal scholars Dave Kopel, Clayton Cramer and Joe Olson, which makes the case for constitutional protection for knives.
Knife Rights has received much support for its legislative endeavors from the National Rifle Association, but the group has also gained the backing of liberal groups such as the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union.
That’s because knife-control laws fall hardest on minority populations, a trend that dates back to restrictions on knife and gun ownership passed after the Civil War aimed at blacks.
“There’s a huge criminal justice reform element to what we do because there are significantly disproportionate arrests of people of color on knife charges,” Mr. Ritter said. “So we have sponsors for some of our bills who are NRA F-rated legislators, and they’re sponsoring our bills.”
His stab at passing state pre-emption laws has met with impressive success. So far, 10 states have approved laws prohibiting localities from pushing through ordinances on knives tougher than the laws of their states.
Currently on the organization’s chopping block is the 1958 Federal Switchblade Act — a Senate bill to repeal the measure was introduced last week by Sen. Roger F. Wicker, Mississippi Republican — and New York’s tough anti-knife laws.
Knife Rights filed a civil rights lawsuit seven years ago challenging New York City’s enforcement of the state’s gravity knife laws, citing figures showing that minorities are far more likely to be arrested and charged, even those living in predominantly white neighborhoods.
“New York City has arrested and prosecuted well over 60,000 individuals in the last decade or so for carrying common pocketknives,” Mr. Ritter said. “This is not like a parking ticket. This is a serious misdemeanor with a potential year in jail. … You have people literally going up the river to jail for carrying a common pocketknife.”
He came close to cutting down the law in the state Legislature last year with a bill that would have legalized “gravity knives,” a type of pocketknife commonly sold in hardware stores and used by construction workers.
After passing overwhelmingly in October in the state Legislature, however, the measure was vetoed for the second straight year by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who said the bill as written would have essentially legalized “all folding knives.”
“In doing so, the Legislature has gone far beyond the innocent laborers carrying these knives for legitimate purposes and has grossly disregarded the concerns of law enforcement,” Mr. Cuomo said in his veto message.
Mr. Ritter argued that the vast majority of knife attacks are committed with kitchen knives and that the idea of switchblades fueling crime sprees was driven by Hollywood movies of 50 years ago.
“As I tell legislators when we’re talking to them, or when I’m on the Hill talking to senators and congressmen and -women, the Sharks and the Jets are either dead or in old-folks homes now,” Mr. Ritter said. “The issue with switchblades was a fiction promulgated mostly by Hollywood. There was never a problem.”
Oddly enough, he said, Mr. Khan’s ban on knives in London wound up benefiting knife owners by drawing attention to the idea of banning cutlery.
“That’s worked to our favor because it’s so ridiculous,” Mr. Ritter said.
“When we go to talk to people about repealing knife laws, they often bring that up. People have lots of perfectly good reasons to carry a knife. The key is, don’t use the knife to commit a crime.”