Featured Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Switchblades Now Legal to Carry

Knives with blades longer than four inches in length, as well as automatic knives — also known as “switchblades” — are now legal to carry no matter where you live in Tennessee.

The change to the language of the Tennessee statute  was to ensure statewide consistency in the law that governs the type and size of knives that can be legally carried, said the sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Mike Bell of Riceville.

“If compared to guns, it would be like allowing a city to say you could only own a .22 rifle, but you couldn’t own a .30-06 rifle,” said Bell, a Republican, who also serves as the Senate Government Operations Committee chairman.

The legislation passed 24-1 in the Senate and 75-16 in the House, where it was sponsored by Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah. It also increases the maximum fine for carrying a switchblade with the intent to use it in the commission of a felony from $3,000 to $6,000. Gov. Bill Haslam signed the measure April 8 and it took effect July 1.

A 2013 bill with the same sponsors would have scrapped the four-inch restriction, as well as allowing brass knuckles and switchblades. However, after receiving pushback from police in the state, the a duller version of the bill was adopted that restrained local municipalities passing stricter ordinances than those adopted by the state.

Prior to approval of last year’s “preemption” bill, a person carrying a knife with a four-inch-blade within the bounds of the law in Nashville would’ve been acting illegally by possessing that same knife in Clarksville, observed Bell.

He defended the loosening of the knife restrictions while keeping the restrictions in place for brass knuckles and other weapons. “A knife is a tool — they’re used as tools all over the place,” Bell said, but added that there isn’t much practical use for brass knuckles or other similar weapons, and he hasn’t heard people “clamoring to use” those items.

According to Bell, when he began looking into issues around knife violence several years ago, he discovered that most attacks were carried out with kitchen knives, and that the crimes were usually domestic-assault related.

“When I first spoke to the TBI about this bill about three years ago, the TBI told me that automatic knives, or switchblades, don’t even show up as a statistic in crime,” Bell said. “That’s how rare it is for somebody to use one.”

Todd Rathner, a board member for the group Knife Rights — an organization somewhat like an “NRA for knife owners” — testified in the Legislature this year about switchblades, and informed that that 30 other states in the United States had no restrictions on automatic knives.

“Back in the 1950s, because of movies like ‘West Side Story’ and ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ and other silly Hollywood productions, the federal government in its wisdom saw fit to place restrictions on so-called switchblade knives, and then a number of states followed,” Rathner said. “Some states didn’t. My home states of Arizona has never had a law against switchblades, and it’s never caused any kind of a problem.”

Bell said he knows several people who enjoy outdoor activities that use automatic knives in the pursuit of those activities because of the handiness of having a knife that can be operated with one-hand.

And previously law enforcement officers and firefighters had special exemptions to the law for similar reasons, Bell said. Additionally, he said that the change in the law could lead Tennessee knife manufacturers to expand their operations, and provide more jobs for Tennesseans.

But the change in law has faced criticism from the state’s minority party since it was proposed last year, despite some Democratic members ultimately voting in favor of this year’s legislation.

Rep. Sherry Jones, a Nashville Democrat, lampooned the number of weapons-related bills the General Assembly’s been considering over the past couple years. “Are y’all expecting the zombie apocalypse, or something, because there are just so many weapons available now, and I was just wondering if you knew something we didn’t?” Jones said.

This week, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, tweeted that, “#Switchblades & #swords are now legal to carry in #Tennessee, but not brass knuckles. This does not seem fair (or like a good idea).”

However, the bill received two votes from Democrats in the Senate and six in the House, including a thumbs-up from House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner. The upper chamber’s lone no vote belonged to Lowe Finney, the minority party caucus chairman who is retiring from the Legislature.