Tuesday, February 10, 2015

How Switchblades were Banned

Flylock switchblade made 1918 to 1929.  3 3/8 inches long, closed.

In 1958, the United States congress passed a law that banned the manufacture of switchblade knives for interstate commerce.  Most states followed the federal example.  It was a stupid and pointless law that had no serious effect on criminals, but which ensnared tens if not hundreds of thousands of innocent people.   Forturnately, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) did not exist at the time, or we might have had the BATFK.  The history of this law, the yellow journalism which promoted it, and the corrupt politicians who brought it into being, were recorded by Bernard Levine in 1990.  I came across Levine's seminal article  a couple of years ago.  It is available on the internet, in the old, text only format that I remember from the early Defense Data Network days.   The article deserves a much wider audience, which is why I am referencing it here.

Mr. Levine, wishes to have his copywrite respected, so I shall only excerpt short bits here.  I urge everyone to read the original article, available at knife-expert.com.   The article starts with this paragraph:
AUGUST 12, 1958, a date that has faded into obscurity, the Congress of the United States enacted Public Law 85-623, an "act to prohibit the introduction, or manufacture for introduction, into interstate commerce of switchblade knives, and for other purposes," and sent it on to President Eisenhower for his signature. Under this act, "The term 'switchblade knife' meant any knife having a blade which opens automatically -- 
(1) by hand pressure applied to a button or other device in the handle of the knife, or 
(2) by operation of inertia, gravity, or both." 
The maximum penalty for each violation of this law was a $2,000 fine and five years in jail.
Levine goes on to examine the history of switchblade knives, American manufactures, the debate in Congress, and the parallel to the "assault weapon" ban.  At the time that the article was written, in 1990, the Clintonian "assault weapon" ban had not been passed, sunset out of existence, and generally discredited.

Levine's article documents the rational objections to the ban brought up by the Attorney General and the Secretary of Commerce, to their credit.  From the Attorney General, William P. Rodgers:
"Switchblade knives in the hands of criminals are, of course, potentially dangerous weapons. However, since they serve useful and even essential purposes in the hands of persons such as sportsmen, shipping clerks, and others engaged in lawful pursuits, the committee may deem it preferable that they be regulated at the State rather than the Federal level."
Mr. Levine does an excellent job of describing the lies and distortions used by the  politicians pushing the ban.  I have no wish to duplicate his work, but the parallels with the willful ignorance of those who push for more and more legislative restrictions on firearms are obvious.  Even the 100 year gap in their references to technological advances is similar:

Congressman Delaney's mind was made up, so it probably would have been pointless to confuse him with the facts. Switchblades came into common use in the United States, not around 1950 as he stated, but around 1850. After the turn of the century, thanks to the inventive genius of George Schrade (and the "protection" of the Tariff Acts of 1891 and 1897), American made switchblades of all sizes became popular and commonplace.
It will come as no surprise that the principle push for the switchblade ban was a representative from New York City, James J. Delaney.   New York is noted for its nannystate policies.  Levine goes into detail about the philosophical basis for this desire to control every aspect of a persons life.

Mr. Levine does not mention the influence of the play, West Side Story, in the  passage of the bill.  West Side Story emphasized the role of the switchblade in juvenile delinquency.  It was nominated for six Tony awards in 1957 and ran for 732 performances in NYC before going on tour.  The switchblade ban, which did not make it out of committee in 1954, was passed in 1958.

West Side Story was not the only fictional portrayal of the switchblade knife as iconic of delinquent gang usage, but it is the best remembered.   The progenitive nature of the media coverage in promoting and eventually creating the ban on switchblades cannot be over emphasized.  From wikipedia:
During the 1950s, established U.S. newspapers as well as the sensationalist tabloid press joined forces in promoting the image of a young delinquent with a stiletto switchblade or flick knife. While the press focused on the switchblade as a symbol of youthful evil intent, the American public's attention was attracted by lurid stories of urban youth gang warfare and the fact that many gangs were composed of lower class youth and/or racial minorities.[4] The purported offensive nature of the stiletto switchblade combined with reports of knife fights, robberies, and stabbings by youth gangs and other criminal elements in urban areas of the United States generated continuing demands from newspaper editorial rooms and the public for new laws restricting the lawful possession and/or use of switchblade knives.[4] In 1954, the state of New York passed the first law banning the sale or distribution of switchblade knives in hopes of reducing gang violence. That same year, Democratic Rep. James J. Delaney of New York authored the first bill submitted to the U.S. Congress banning the manufacture and sale of switchblades.

Bernard Levine did the country a service by researching the history of the switchblade ban, writing the article and keeping it available on the Internet.  It is a valuable resource for those interested in rolling back these intellectually dishonest and counterproductive laws. 

©2015 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice is included.
Link to Gun Watch

2 comments:

Jennifer Lawrence said...

I always wondered why there are so many rules on switchblade knives' use. Thanks for the share.

Riley Smith said...

Thank you for suggestion. This will be great help me as I am just getting making Switchblades Knives and Knives Switchblades