As I sit here, I’m typing something I never thought that I would: switchblades are legal to possess and carry in Pennsylvania as of January 2, 2023. Pennsylvania is one of the states where switchblades, otherwise known as automatic knives, have been illegal for decades. And I didn’t expect that to change. Thanks to work by the folks at Knife Rights, the implausible happened, and PA. Residents can now carry and use auto knives without fear of negative consequences with law enforcement.
Are Switchblades Legal?
This brings up the point: are switchblades actually legal to possess or carry? Many folks still think they are not, and that has been true in many places since the 1950s. Those laws are getting rolled back, though, largely due to the work of Knife Rights. To find out more about the history of automatic knife laws and what’s happening to change them, I reached out to Doug Ritter, the founder of KnifeRights.org.
The History of Switchblade Laws in the United States
To start with, let’s define a switchblade. A switchblade is a knife with a blade that springs out from the handle with the press of a button. These generally consist of either Out the Side (OTS) models, where the blades pivot open out of the handle just like a conventional folding knife or Out the Front (OTF) model. An OTF has an enclosed handle, and the blade opens straight out through the front, or top, of the handle.
I asked Doug to give me some background on switchblade laws in the US, and here’s what he told me.
“Switchblade knives date from the early- to mid-1800s and became quite popular in this country in the 1920s and ’30s. It wasn’t until the 1950s that they became legally problematic in many states. In 1950, a sensationalist article titled The Toy That Kills appeared in the Women’s Home Companion, a widely read U.S. periodical of the day.
“The article sparked a storm of controversy. It ultimately led to a nationwide campaign by political opportunists of the day that would eventually result in state laws restricting switchblade possession or carry and federal laws criminalizing the importation and interstate commerce in automatic-opening knives. Please read the article for more information.
“Politicians saw the switchblade controversy as an opportunity to capitalize on constant negative accounts of switchblades and their connection to violence and youth gangs. This coverage included not only magazine articles but also highly popular films of the mid-to-late 1950s, including Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Crime in the Streets (1956), 12 Angry Men (1957), The Delinquents (1957), High School Confidential (1958), and the 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story.
Eventually, about half the states enacted complete or partial bans on switchblades, and in 1958 the Federal Switchblade Act was enacted.”
Changing the Landscape
The various switchblade laws across the country largely remained unchallenged for decades. In 2009 Knife Rights was able to get an exemption added to the Federal Switchblade Act that kept one hand and assisted openers from being classified as switchblades. This was a huge win for the knife-using community.
Look at how prevalent assisted openers and one-hand openers are. They’re probably the most common style folding knife you see sold and available today. None of those would be around without the exemption that Knife Rights fought for.
After that win at the federal level, Knife Rights started working on state regulations. The organization got its first success in New Hampshire in 2010 with the repeal of its switchblade ban. Since that time, Knife Rights has spearheaded the repeal of switchblade bans in 19 other states, including my home state’s win this month. It’s also worked on the legislature on the local level with successful results in 150 cities and towns in 25 states.
I asked Doug what the biggest obstacles were to Knife Right’s work. He said that the old 1950’s stigma, and West Side Story, still have a lingering effect with the negative stereotype that many have about switchblades. That stereotype fuels many politicians to view switchblades simply as a weapon, not a tool like any other knife.
That’s where the education of the legislature comes into play, which is what Knife Rights does. The other factor is the cost of getting legislation passed. It often takes years of work and lobbying to gain traction on a repeal. All of that costs money as well as time.
What about me?
So what does that mean for you? Are switchblades legal where you live or not? An easy way to check is to look on the Knife Rights website. They have a constantly updated list of switchblade laws across the country and any particular limitations they may have.
They also have a LegalBlade App available for Android and iOS that you can use when you travel. It’s a great resource for knife laws in all 50 states and for 40 major US cities. Keep in mind that some states still have restrictions on carry, such as needing a concealed carry permit, even if they are otherwise legal to own.
If you’re in one of the states that still prohibit switchblades, Doug doesn’t advise carrying one.
He notes that “It’s not a problem until it becomes a problem.”
If you do get arrested, you’re looking at expensive legal fees, possible jail time, and a criminal record. If you do get arrested for carrying an automatic knife, Knife Rights has a great section of advice on their website for that too. Honestly, it’s worth reading for anyone carrying a switchblade knife, even in states where they are legal.
If you’re trapped in one of the states whose laws still prohibit you from owning or carrying a switchblade, don’t give up hope, though. I honestly never thought I’d see the day when Pennsylvania legalized switchblades, yet here we are, thanks to the folks at Knife Rights.
This isn’t a cause that most politicians are going to pursue on their own. But with the right education and encouragement, it can be done—as the folks at Knife Rights have shown again and again.
If you want to support their work, consider joining Knife Rights or making a donation to help the cause at KnifeRights.org.