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Monday, June 25, 2018

By Lauren Etter, Bloomberg News (TNS)

AUSTIN, Texas — State lawmakers are bringing knives to the gunfight.

Expanding the battle over the right to bear arms, U.S. legislatures that relaxed laws after the gun lobby’s decades-long push are now loosening restrictions on switchblades, dirks, daggers, and poignards.

The charge is being led by a group whose leadership includes a wilderness survival entrepreneur, a National Rifle Association board member and a “Joy of Cooking” co-author who travels with a seven-inch Santoku knife for slicing thyme-stuffed pork loin roasted on a spit over a campfire.

Called Knife Rights, the group claims support not only from Republicans, but also from urban Democrats concerned that the laws are used to target blacks and Latinos. Since 2010, it has helped roll back bans in nine states and is lobbying legislatures in a dozen more.

“We call it the second front in defense of the Second Amendment,” said Todd Rathner, director of legislative affairs and sole paid lobbyist for the Gilbert, Arizona-based group.

On April 29, a Texas legislative committee heard testimony on a bill that would repeal a ban on daggers, swords, spears, and the Bowie knife, a blade inspired by a defender of the Alamo.

“I don’t see knives posing that big of a danger to the public,” state Representative Harold Dutton Jr. (D-TX), who sponsored the bill, said in an interview. “Now that we’re going to let everybody have a gun, I think we ought to set knives free.”

Dutton, a black Democrat from Houston, sees knife laws as a threat to civil rights.

“It is another one of those things that helps establish probable cause for a policeman to stop you,” he said.

Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old Baltimore man whose April death in police custody ignited riots, was arrested after police said they noticed a knife inside his pants.

Law enforcement officers are less enthusiastic about ending restrictions.

“There’s a time and a place for knives,” said Sean Mannix, police chief in Cedar Park, Texas, and chairman of the Texas Police Chiefs Association’s legislative committee. “When you start talking about weapons with 12-inch blades like bayonets and things like that, there’s just no good reason for people to carry that in public — and it’s alarming to folks.”

The bill remains in a House of Representatives committee.

Almost half of U.S. states regulate switchblade knives, whether by a limit on blade length or an outright ban, according to Knife Rights. Many of those also regulate other types of knives deemed dangerous. Cities have their own regulations, leaving a patchwork of rules that critics say confuses knife owners.

Knife Rights argues that Americans have a right to slice.

The group began in 2006 after Doug Ritter, a manufacturer of survival kits, and Ethan Becker, who oversees the cookbook his grandmother wrote in 1931, found common ground over a belief that bans were anachronistic.

Becker, a Paris-trained chef, has had a lifelong fascination with knives, designing and manufacturing them. He agreed to fund the group.

Four years later, Ritter met Rathner at an NRA board meeting. Rathner, a board member for the gun-rights group, had recently pushed Arizona’s “constitutional carry” law, which let citizens tote firearms openly without a permit. A decade earlier, he had encouraged the state to enact a so-called pre-emption law that prohibited cities from enacting their own restrictions.

“I said, ‘Let’s try to enact knife pre-emption in Arizona and see if we can make it stick,'” Rathner said.

It stuck: In 2010, then-Governor Jan Brewer signed the nation’s first such measure.

That same year, they persuaded New Hampshire to lift its ban on switchblades and other knives. In 2011, they got Utah to enact a pre-emption law.

“From there, we put together a strategy to start hitting as many states as possible,” Rathner said.