By MAUREEN HAYDEN
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
For more than a half-century, the only legal access that most Hoosiers had to switchblades was viewing them in the hands of youthful hoodlums in movies such as “West Side Story” and “Rebel Without a Cause.”
That’s soon to end.
Come July 1, Indiana will join a growing number of states rolling back their decades-old prohibitions on automatic spring-loaded knives, better known as switchblades.
A small provision tucked into a larger hunting and fishing bill does away with a 1957 law that made it a misdemeanor crime to manufacture, possess, display, offer, sell, lend, give away, or purchase switchblades in Indiana.
“It was an obsolete law,” said state Sen. Jim Tomes, a Republican from Posey County who supported the change.
His argument: There is very little difference between the illegal spring-loaded switchblade of the past and the one-handed, spring-assisted handheld knives that are legally on the market and widely sold today.
During a hearing on the issue earlier this year, Tomes demonstrated how both knives could be opened quickly with one hand.
“No one could tell the difference. Maybe the law made some sense back in the ‘50s,” Tomes said, citing a rash of state and federal laws from that era that criminalized swithblades in response to fears that it was the weapon of choice for youth gangs. “But today, it doesn’t make sense.”
Tomes successfully made that argument in the Senate during the 2013 session, which ended in April. His bill to lift the ban won unanimous support in the Senate, but was stalled in the House — as similar bills in the past have — when it didn’t get a hearing.
But it got new life in the final days of the session, when a legislative conference committee put the switchblade language into House Bill 1563, a wildlife and fishing bill that makes it legal for hunters in Indiana to use lawfully possessed suppressors, also known as silencers, on firearms while hunting. That House bill, signed into law in May by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, goes into effect July 1.
For supporting the repeal of the switchblade ban, Tomes and a Senate colleague, state Sen. Johnny Nugent of Lawrenceburg, were honored by Knife Rights, Inc., a national organization modeled after the National Rifle Association. They were given the organization’s Freedom’s Edge Award.
Tomes said Knife Rights didn’t ask him directly to support the repeal of the switchblade law.
But Knife Rights founder Doug Ritter did call on his organization’s supporters, which include musician and gun-rights advocate Ted Nugent, to contact Indiana legislators to support the bill.
“We had a lot to do with it,” Ritter said of the switchblade repeal.
Indiana is one of five states that passed laws this year repealing bans on switchblades. The others include Kansas, Alaska, Tennessee, and Texas. Since 2010, Arizona, Georgia, New Hamshire, and Utah have also passed similar laws, repealing bans on some knives that had been classified as illegal.
Ritter, a survival-equipment expert, calls the laws “archaic” and a throw-back to an earlier era when switchblades were demonized. Ritter said Knife Rights will continue to work in other states to repeal knife-related laws and likened his organization’s work to that done by the NRA. That is, to use political pressure to convince legislators that law-abiding citizens have a right to bear arms - knives in this case — under the Second Amendment.
“Knives are essential tools used by millions of Americans every day, at work, at home, while recreating,” Ritter said. “And every now and then, it’s also used as a weapon in to defend one’s self or one’ family,” he said.
Ritter said his organization will continue its work in 23 states that still have a prohibition on swithblades. He also wants to see legislation introduced next year in Indiana that would lift any local bans on knives, similar to legislation passed three years ago that bars local communities from passing or enforcing local laws regulating firearms.
–Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@ indianamediagroup.com