Ac­tivists take a page from NRA to over­turn knife lim­its

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY TODD C. FRANKEL

las ve­gas — He or­dered the 20-ounce rib-eye, and so the wait­ress at the up­scale restau­rant dropped off a wood-han­dled ser­rated steak knife. Doug Rit­ter ig­nored it. In­stead he pulled out a fold­ing knife, its 3.4-inch blade il­le­gal to carry con­cealed here in Clark County. He flicked it open with one hand. When the steak ar­rived, medium-rare, he started cut­ting.

The steak din­ner came as Rit­ter was sa­vor­ing his many suc­cess­ful at­tempts at re­peal­ing the na­tion’s knife laws. Decades-old re­stric­tions on switch­blades, dag­gers and stilet­tos have fallen away in state af­ter state in re­cent years. Much of this is be­cause of Rit­ter and his lit­tle-known Ari­zona-based ad­vo­cacy group Knife Rights, which has used tac­tics bor­rowed from the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion to rack up leg­isla­tive vic­to­ries across the na­tion. And many of the changes have es­caped wide­spread no­tice, ob­scured, in part, by the na­tion’s fo­cus on guns.

But knife fans know. The morn­ing af­ter his steak din­ner, Rit­ter walked like a celebrity into a ma­jor knife con­ven­tion here.

“Thank you for ev­ery­thing you’re do­ing for us. Re­ally,” an of­fi­cial with knife maker Ka-Bar told him.

“I live in Louisiana, so thank you,” said an­other con­ven­tion­goer, hail­ing from a state that aban­doned its switch­blade ban this sum­mer.

Rit­ter, 65, said that knives, like guns, should be con­sid­ered arms pro­tected by the Sec­ond Amend­ment. He doesn’t sup­port any

re­stric­tion on knives — not on switch­blades or push dag­gers or even the bal­lis­tic knives that shoot like spears from a han­dle.

That’s be­come a win­ning ar­gu­ment. Twenty-one states have re­pealed or weak­ened their knife laws since 2010, many of them with bi­par­ti­san sup­port, in­clud­ing Colorado, Michi­gan and Illi­nois. New York came close to do­ing the same last year. Ohio could be next. Texas passed its bill last year de­spite a high­pro­file stab­bing death just days be­fore law­mak­ers voted. And Knife Rights, with lit­tle fi­nan­cial back­ing, has been work­ing be­hind the scenes to help make it hap­pen.

“A lot of peo­ple said it would be im­pos­si­ble to re­peal a switch­blade law in any state. In­sane. Tilt­ing at wind­mills,” Rit­ter said. “Turns out they were wrong.”

The suc­cess of Knife Rights comes as calls for weapons bans have in­ten­si­fied fol­low­ing mass shoot­ings, such as the one here in Las Ve­gas last year that left 58 peo­ple dead.

Guns are by far the lead­ing cause of homi­cides in the na­tion.

But knives are No. 2, ac­cord­ing to the FBI, mak­ing up 11 per­cent of killings in 2016 and a grow­ing num­ber of vi­o­lent crimes.

Yet knives have es­caped com­pa­ra­ble scru­tiny.

The FBI records about 1,600 knife slay­ings a year, a num­ber dwarfed by the 7,100 an­nual hand­gun killings. But that is still four times as high as the num­ber killed by ri­fles, in­clud­ing the as­sault-style ri­fles that are the fo­cus of gun-con­trol ac­tivists.

There are mass stab­bings, too, but they tend to re­ceive less at­ten­tion. In 2014, a 16-year-old stu­dent wounded 21 peo­ple at a Pitts­burgh high school with a knife. Last year, a man al­legedly used a knife to kill two peo­ple and in­jure a third at a train sta­tion in Port­land, Ore. In July, a man stabbed nine peo­ple, killing a 3-year-old girl, at her birth­day party in Boise, Idaho.

But lit­tle is known about knife vi­o­lence in the United States. No na­tional statis­tics track the kind of knife used in crimes. There is no group op­pos­ing ex­panded knife rights.

“It cer­tainly makes our job eas­ier,” Rit­ter said.

This is con­trasted with how knife crime is treated in coun­tries such as Bri­tain and Aus­tralia, where guns are more strictly reg­u­lated and knife crimes are pub­licly de­bated.

In the United States, knife ac­tivists ac­knowl­edge gun vi­o­lence’s in­flu­ence on at­ti­tudes to­ward knives.

“If some­one would try to be anti-knife in Amer­ica, it’s like, why are you wor­ry­ing about knives when we have all this gun stuff?” said Evan Nap­pen, an at­tor­ney who works with Knife Rights. “It helps the knife move­ment.”

Now, Knife Rights is go­ing af­ter its big­gest leg­isla­tive tar­get: over­turn­ing the 1958 Fed­eral Switch­blade Act, which bans the in­ter­state ship­ment or im­por­ta­tion of knives that open at the push of a but­ton. It’s a long shot, but Rit­ter met ear­lier this month with law­mak­ers on Capi­tol Hill.

“We’re try­ing to frame it as a free­dom is­sue,” Rit­ter said in Wash­ing­ton, be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing into a con­gress­man’s of­fice.

Build­ing cred­i­bil­ity

Rit­ter started Knife Rights in 2006 af­ter read­ing a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle he thought was crit­i­cal of knife own­er­ship.

Rit­ter, who lives out­side Phoenix, de­signs knives. He works as a sur­vival­ist con­sul­tant. And he wor­ries about a push to re­strict knives.

“It was an epiphany for me that we might be fac­ing in the United States the same kind of an­tipa­thy against pock­etknives that I saw in Europe,” he said.

But he didn’t have any ex­pe­ri­ence as an ac­tivist.

Then, U.S. Cus­toms and Border Pro­tec­tion agents “did me a fa­vor,” he said.

In 2009, the agency pro­posed adding spring-as­sisted knives to the Fed­eral Switch­blade Act. That would have hurt sales of pock­etknives that open with one hand. A bi­par­ti­san group of law­mak­ers moved to pro­tect the knives.

Rit­ter’s fledg­ling group joined oth­ers in lob­by­ing for the change. The knife in­dus­try al­ready had a trade group, the Amer­i­can Knife & Tool In­sti­tute. Rit­ter po­si­tioned Knife Rights as ad­vo­cat­ing for knife own­ers.

“We sud­denly had some cred­i­bil­ity,” Rit­ter said.

Later that year, he hired Todd Rath­ner as Knife Rights’s lob­by­ist af­ter meet­ing him at a gun rights con­fer­ence.

Rath­ner, 52, to­day de­scribes him­self as Amer­ica’s only knife lob­by­ist.

Rath­ner, also a Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion board mem­ber, said les­sons learned from the gun rights group have been in­stru­men­tal.

“The NRA’s suc­cesses cer­tainly make some parts of our ar­gu­ment more log­i­cal, and it paves the way,” Rath­ner said.

But Knife Rights has tried to avoid the po­lar­iz­ing pol­i­tics of the gun de­bate. And the or­ga­ni­za­tion is small, rais­ing only $215,000 in 2015, ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent avail­able In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice fil­ings, plus an ad­di­tional $215,000 for its non­profit foun­da­tion.

Rit­ter, who serves as the un­paid chair­man of both groups, said the money comes from knife users and man­u­fac­tur­ers. He de­clined to re­veal mem­ber­ship numbers. Most of the fund­ing, Rit­ter said, goes to­ward pay­ing Rath­ner and for both men to fly across the coun­try.

Hol­ly­wood’s in­flu­ence

Many of the na­tion’s knife laws were passed in the late 1950s and fo­cused on ban­ning switch­blades. Some states re­stricted blade lengths and de­sign.

Knife ac­tivists dis­miss th­ese laws as over­re­ac­tions to fears of knife-wield­ing thugs from a by­gone era. “Rebel With­out a Cause” hit the­aters in 1955. “West Side Story” and its de­pic­tion of ri­val Jets and Sharks ap­peared on Broad­way in 1957.

“There’s noth­ing spe­cial about th­ese knives other than Hol­ly­wood de­mo­nized the heck out of them,” Rit­ter said.

The knife laws started to change in 2010.

Rit­ter and Rath­ner helped win a re­peal of New Hamp­shire’s ban on switch­blades, dirks, dag­gers and stilet­tos. They helped push Ari­zona, their home state, to re­peal all lo­cal knife or­di­nances. The “preemp­tion bill” was a clas­sic NRA tac­tic, usu­ally used to pre­vent cities from im­pos­ing their own stricter guns laws.

Knife-friendly bills in Utah, Ge­or­gia and Ten­nessee fol­lowed.

The ar­gu­ment was sim­ple: Ev­ery­one has a kitchen knife. The switch­blade-twirling gangs are not a mod­ern-day threat. Knife laws, they said, are out­dated.

“They never ac­com­plished any­thing,” Rit­ter said, “and it’s time for them to go away.”

But the topic re­mained a par­ti­san one, mostly sup­ported by Repub­li­cans.

Then they hit upon an idea to gain a broader base of sup­port.

“This was a crim­i­nal jus­tice is­sue,” Rath­ner said.

Un­usual al­lies

That led them to try to re­peal knife laws in an un­likely place: New York.

In New York, Knife Rights teamed up with the Le­gal Aid So­ci­ety to chal­lenge the state’s ban on grav­ity knives, which have blades that fall from the The ban was in­ter­preted to in­clude knives that open with a flick of the wrist, mak­ing it il­le­gal to carry cer­tain pock­etknives, although which ones de­pended on a sub­jec­tive test.

About 4,000 peo­ple are ar­rested each year in New York City for car­ry­ing il­le­gal knives, many of them trades­men who have no idea their tools are pro­hib­ited, ac­cord­ing to the Le­gal Aid So­ci­ety. Most of those ar­rested are mi­nori­ties.

Yet the knives are still widely sold at sport­ing goods and hard­ware stores.

“Why is it you’re go­ing to call the knife il­le­gal when it’s in the hands of our clients who are black and Latino,” said Hana Ro­br­ish, a staff at­tor­ney with the Le­gal Aid So­ci­ety, “but le­gal to be sold on the shelves of our stores?”

The un­usual coali­tion be­tween Knife Rights and the Le­gal Aid So­ci­ety pushed state lawhan­dle. mak­ers to le­gal­ize knives that open with a flick of the wrist. New York City po­lice and pros­e­cu­tors ob­jected. In 2016 and again last year, the bill passed the state­house over­whelm­ingly, only to be ve­toed by the gover­nor.

Tragedy in Texas

The big­gest win for Knife Rights came last year in Texas, high­light­ing the group’s in­flu­ence.

Al­ready, Knife Rights had helped per­suade Texas in 2013 to re­peal its switch­blade ban.

Now, Rit­ter and Rath­ner were back to erase re­stric­tions on all other knives — from dag­gers to swords to bowie knives. It should have been easy. “Knives are the new guns. And Repub­li­cans in Texas al­ways look for new ways to re­lax gun laws,” said Bran­don Rot­ting­haus, a po­lit­i­cal-sci­ence pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Hous­ton.

Rath­ner said he got Democrats on board with the crim­i­nal jus­tice ar­gu­ment.

“Their con­stituents are the ones be­ing charged for car­ry­ing this kind of knife,” he said. “They rec­og­nize that this isn’t a good thing.”

But five days be­fore a vote, a ran­dom stab­bing ram­page at the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin, near the state­house, left one stu­dent dead and three wounded. The at­tacker used a long bowie knife.

“That was the ex­act knife we were try­ing to le­gal­ize the car­ry­ing of,” Rath­ner said

He knew his bill was in trouble. He booked the first flight to Austin. But Rath­ner found a com­pro­mise: a bill to le­gal­ize all knives ex­cept those longer than 51/2 inches when car­ried in re­stricted places such as schools.

Days later it passed the House 135 to 1.

The gover­nor signed the bill into law.

It took Lori Brown by sur­prise. Her son, Har­ri­son Brown, 19, was the stu­dent stabbed to death in Austin. She was lost in a fog of grief. She only later learned law­mak­ers had passed the knife bill. She didn’t know what to do. She felt alone.

But the mass shoot­ing in Fe­bru­ary at a high school in Park­land, Fla., mo­ti­vated her. She be­gan call­ing leg­is­la­tors and the gover­nor. She even called Rath­ner. She told him about her son. Rath­ner ex­plained why he op­posed knife laws. She told him why stronger laws were needed.

“I will fight, and I will fight,” she said re­cently. “I have noth­ing to lose.”

She pledged to be in Austin when leg­is­la­tors re­turn early next year.

Knife Rights will be there, too. Rit­ter and Rath­ner hope to cut the last re­main­ing knife laws from the books.

Decades-old re­stric­tions on sev­eral types of knives have been re­pealed across the U.S.

PHO­TOS BY BRID­GET BEN­NETT FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Knife maker Douglas Sta­cie, left, thanks Doug Rit­ter, chair­man of Knife Rights, dur­ing the Usual Sus­pect Gath­er­ing in Las Ve­gas last month. Rit­ter was treated like a celebrity at the event for his suc­cesses in re­peal­ing the na­tion’s knife laws.

Todd Rath­ner, di­rec­tor of leg­isla­tive af­fairs for Knife Rights, holds a one-handed open knife. Rath­ner, 52, also an NRA board mem­ber, de­scribes him­self as Amer­ica’s only knife lob­by­ist.

BRID­GET BEN­NETT FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

“The NRA’s suc­cesses cer­tainly make some parts of our ar­gu­ment more log­i­cal, and it paves the way,” said Todd Rath­ner, di­rec­tor of leg­isla­tive af­fairs for Knife Rights, seen here brows­ing knives at the Usual Sus­pect Gath­er­ing in Las Ve­gas last month.

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