May 7, 2015 – Gilbert, AZ: Freddie Gray was charged by Officer G. Miller with violating Baltimore’s “Switch-blade knives” City Code which was originally passed in 1950. Freddie Gray’s knife was described by the officer, under penalty of perjury, as “…found to be a spring assisted, one hand operated knife…” (link to Charging Document) In other words, the officer swore that it was a spring-assisted knife. Spring-assisted knives (also called “assisted-opening” knives) were not invented until the 1990’s. The City Code reads as follows
§ 59-22 Switch-blade knives.
It shall be unlawful for any person to sell, carry, or possess any knife with an automatic spring or other device for opening and/or closing the blade, commonly known as a switch-blade knife. (Emphasis added)
Any person violating the provisions of this section, shall, upon conviction thereof, be fined not more than $500 or be imprisoned for not more than 1 year, or both, in the discretion of the court. (City Code, 1950, art. 24, §155; 1966, art. 19, §160; 1976/83, art. 19, §185.) (Ord. 44-057.)
Spring-assisted knives are not switchblades. They have never been “commonly known” as switchblades, especially in 1950 which was over 40 years before spring-assisted knives were even invented.
In 2009 U.S. Customs attempted to arbitrarily and expansively redefine “switchblades” under federal law to include one-hand opening knives and including spring-assisted knives. U.S. Customs sought to prohibit importation of spring-assisted knives under the 1958 Federal Switchblade Act. They wanted to do this despite four previous U.S. Customs ruling letters (from prior administrations) that specifically determined that “assisted opening” knives not to be defined as switchblades under the Act.
In response to Customs’ attempt to redefine what a switchblade was, Congress passed, and President Obama signed into law on October 28 2009, specific language protecting one-hand opening and spring-assisted knives from being included as switchblades under the 1958 Federal Switchblade Act. The federal law reads as follows (relevant portions only and emphasis added):
15 U.S.C.A. § 1241. Definitions
As used in this chapter–
(b) The term “switchblade knife” means 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,
15 U.S.C.A. § 1244. Exceptions
Sections 1242 and 1243 of this title shall not apply to—
(5) a knife that contains a spring, detent, or other mechanism designed to create a bias toward closure of the blade and that requires exertion applied to the blade by hand, wrist, or arm to overcome the bias toward closure to assist in opening the knife.
A switchblade must have a “button or other device in the handle” which is pushed, causing the blade to “open automatically”. Spring-assisted knives have no such feature and therefore are not, and never were switchblades. Furthermore, 15 U.S.C.A. § 1244. (5) makes it crystal clear that any misinterpretation will not stand regarding spring-assisted knives.
Spring-Assisted (Assisted-Opening) vs. Switchblade (Automatic) Knives
There are a number of industry defined and legal technical distinctions between a Spring-Assisted (Assisted-Opening) knife and a Switchblade (Automatic) knife that make it easy to differentiate between the two. It would appear from the court documents that the arresting officer in the Freddie Gray case clearly understood the difference, or he would have called the knife a switchblade, which he did not.
Switchblade knives have a bias towards opening; the blade is trying to open due to the spring being under tension or compression (depending upon the design). The only thing that keeps the blade from opening is the latch that keeps the blade in the closed position inside the handle of the knife.
Applying pressure on a “button or other device in the handle,” such as pushing down on the button with your thumb, releases the latch and the blade automatically opens. Your finger or hand never touches the blade.
Spring-assisted knives, and virtually all common folding knives for that matter, have a bias towards closure. This is a safety mechanism that prevents the blade from opening in your pocket. A spring or detent or similar mechanical mechanism helps to keep the blade closed until you physically open the blade by “exertion applied to the blade by hand, wrist, or arm to overcome the bias toward closure.”
In a typical spring-assisted knife, the blade must be moved 20-30 degrees open before the spring takes over to finish opening the blade, hence “spring-assist” or “assisted-opening.” The most common style of spring-assisted knife will have a stud on, or hole in the blade that you set your thumb onto or into and by moving your thumb, you rotate the blade open (other styles exist, but the principles remain the same). Once the blade moves past the bias towards closure and has been partially opened, the spring takes over to finish opening the blade.
Since this can be accomplished with just one hand, these knives are also called “one-hand opening” knives. One-hand opening knives may or may not have spring-assist. One-hand opening knives are the most common pocket knives in America, representing over 80% of the folding knives sold in the U.S. today, according to industry statistics.
Evan F. Nappen is an Attorney who has defended knife cases and written on knife law topics for over 20 years. He has a book scheduled to be published this year titled U.S. Knife Law.
Doug Ritter is Chairman of Knife Rights (www.KnifeRights.org), America’s grassroots knife owner advocacy organization. Knife Rights has repealed switchblade bans in 8 states and passed knife law preemption in 9 states since 2010.
About Knife Rights
Knife Rights (www.KnifeRights.org) is rewriting knife law in America™, aggressively fighting for a Sharper Future™ for all knife owners. Knife Rights is dedicated to providing knife owners an effective voice to influence public policy. Knife Rights promotes legislation that eliminates irrational restrictions on knife possession and opposes anti-knife legislation, as well as defending knife owner civil rights in the courts. In the past six years, Knife Rights has passed pro-knife legislation in 13 states and prevented anti-knife legislation in four states. Knife Rights is also the lead plaintiff in a federal civil rights lawsuit against New York City’s persecution of knife owners.
For more information contact:
Evan A Nappen, Esq.