“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” – Amendment 2 to the U.S. Constitution.
When people talk about the Second Amendment and the right to arms, they are generally talking about guns, but at the time the Second Amendment was written, the term “arms” was much broader than today’s narrow focus on handguns, rifles and shotguns.
At one end of the spectrum were cannons and mortars – which were often privately owned – and on the other were dirks, swords, and bayonets – which were commonly carried for defense and as tools of militia service.
Over the years the idea of knives as constitutionally protected arms has not been a prominent one, but that is changing. Over the past several years there has been growing recognition and support of knife rights as real rights. Part of that movement has been fueled by a trend in law enforcement to enforce knife laws against everyone, not just the social demographic against whom the law was originally intended.
Just as most gun laws were originally intended to restrict guns from blacks and were not strictly applied to middle-class white folks, most knife laws were written to target “troubled youths,” particularly those of Hispanic ethnicity, and were not usually applied to mature white people. Selective enforcement was used as both a means to come down harder on the real bad actors and to harass minorities and other “undesirables.”
Even places with relatively good gun laws often have simply terrible knife laws. Back in the early ’90s, the San Antonio City Council passed an ordinance banning the carry of any knife in the city limits. I learned about the law only after a local warned me about the large Gerber folder in a sheath on my right hip. What was interesting about his warning was that it came the day after I had been scrutinized by San Antonio police officers in a tourist bar down on the River Walk.
I was sitting on a barstool sipping a beer in the early evening, and the officers were chatting with the bar’s doorman just a few feet away. I watched in a mirror as each of the officers noticed the knife and then checked me out. They both apparently came to the same conclusion: 30-year old white guy, conservative haircut and clothes, no visible tattoos, not a threat. Leave the tourist alone. Had my skin been darker or if I had otherwise stuck out, I might have had a different sort of evening.
When I lived in Arizona in the ’80s and ’90s, there was no provision for carrying a concealed firearm, but open carry was legal and relatively common. For years I routinely carried a .45 Colt Commander fully visible on my right hip with my Gerber right on top of it. I didn’t know that different Arizona cities had restrictions on knives until an officer in the Phoenix area suggested that I should remove my Gerber to avoid getting a ticket. The suggestion came while the knife was attached to the holster for the Colt I was also carrying. Someone please explain to me how it makes sense to take the knife away from the guy with the gun.
Arizona finally corrected that problem last year when they became the first state in the country to pass a knife preemption law. The law simply says that regulation of knives is a matter for the State Legislature to handle and that a municipality may not have any knife regulations stricter than those promulgated by the State. Most states passed such laws regarding firearms many years ago, but knives have been left to the whims of local legislative bodies reacting to their own phobias and perceptions of crime.
Truth be told, most knife laws were a result of too much exposure to movies like “Westside Story” and “Rebel Without a Cause” rather than real local crime problems. That has meant that people like me who regularly carry a knife have been at risk and often are in violation of some local ordinance without even knowing it. But not in Arizona. Not any more. Now there is only one standard for legal knife carry in the state, and it is a pretty lax standard.
Knife laws, like gun laws, revolve around the fundamental right of self-defense and access to a chosen means of accomplishing such defense. Like gun laws, knife laws are about blaming the tool for the bad behavior – or feared bad behavior – of humans. The notion that placing restrictions on inanimate objects will somehow change human behavior is beyond idiotic, it is insane.
Thankfully the current trend is away from such nonsense, at least here in the U.S. There has actually been a growing movement in Great Britain pushing for the banning of pointy kitchen knives as a means of keeping violent young punks from hurting and killing each other. Let’s hope that more states follow Arizona’s example soon and that the Brits will follow our lead in this rather than the other way around.