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Is Carrying A Knife A Constitutional Right? Recent Wash. Case Highlights Divide

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Should the constitutional right to bear arms include the right to carry a knife in public? That was the question addressed in a recent Washington state court decision.

The case highlights a growing movement advocating the right to carry knives.

Defendant Claims Kitchen Knife Was For Protection

This case over knife rights grew out of a routine traffic stop. On the night of Feb. 27, 2010, Wayne Evans was pulled over for speeding in Seattle. The officer, concerned that the vehicle smelled of marijuana and that Evans and his passenger were making furtive movements, directed Evans to get out of the car.

The cop asked if Evans had any weapons on him. Evans told him he had a kitchen knife in a sheath in his right front pocket. According to court records, Evans said he had been “jumped” before in the same neighborhood and carried the knife for protection.  

Knife Is 'Dangerous' Under Seattle Law

Evans was charged with and eventually convicted of violating Seattle’s ordinance against carrying a “dangerous knife.” The city law, which dates back decades, makes it illegal to carry any fixed-blade knife with a blade longer than 3.5 inches.  

Evans appealed, arguing that carrying a knife should be protected under both Washington state and U.S. laws regarding the “right to bear arms.”

Evans lost his case in the Washington Court of Appeals. The court upheld the city of Seattle’s right to ban certain knives.

“Even the constitutional right to bear arms, whether it’s under the state constitution or the federal constitution, is always subject to reasonable regulation,” said Assistant City Attorney Richard Greene who argued the case on behalf of the city.

Seattle Says Ordinance Protects Public Safety

Greene says there is good reason for Seattle’s knife ordinance, under which 192 people were charged in 2012 and 2013. He says it’s all about public safety.

“If you eliminate the availability of knives, people carrying them in public, you’re going to reduce the amount of violent crime that results from the use of those knives,” Greene said.

Despite the outcome in the Evans case, it does highlight a growing push to challenge bans on carrying knives.

A Second Front In Defense Of The Second Amendment

Doug Ritter, who lives in Arizona, is an advocate for the right to carry knives. He founded the group Knife Rights, Inc. in 2006.

The organization has been remarkably successful in getting state legislatures to overturn or loosen knife laws. The group claimed 18 legislative victories between 2009 and 2013, including seven knife law preemptions that make it illegal for municipalities to pass tougher knife laws than the states have in place.

When asked what he thinks of Seattle’s "dangerous knives" ordinance, Ritter called it “nonsense," adding he sees knife rights as the second front in the defense of the Second Amendment.

Echoing advocate of gun ownership rights, Ritter says criminals will find a way to commit violent crimes whether it’s with a kitchen knife, a hammer, a crowbar or a bat.

“Those are all weapons that have been used to commit violence, but their existence in somebody’s hands doesn’t make anyone a violent person,” he said.

Knife Rights, Inc.’s Success In Washington State

In Washington in 2012, Knife Rights, Inc. and two knife manufacturers in Washington, namely FOX Knives USA and SOG Knives Inc., successfully lobbied the Legislature to overturn a state ban on the manufacturing of switchblades.

Although the knives are still illegal for most people to carry in Washington, the Legislature did exempt first responders, military personnel and police from the switchblade ban.

Group Targets Switchblade Bans

One of the biggest targets for knife rights organizations are switchblade bans.

The bans were passed in the 1950s after Hollywood movies and plays such as “West Side Story” seemingly glamorized switchblade use. The Federal Switchblade Act passed in 1958.

Ritter says while getting rid of the federal law is a long-term goal, for now, the organization will continue working at the state and local level to fight the bans.

Knife Debate Tame Compared To Debate Over Guns

Ritter says his organization’s legislative efforts rarely spark the controversy that debates over gun rights do.

For example, the loosening of the Washington switchblade law passed by 94-0 in the Washington House and only had two votes against it in the state Senate.

Ritter attributes that to the fact that the majority of people are very familiar with knives.

“Tens of millions of Americans carry a knife every day, at work, at play, and occasionally they use them as an arm in defense of themselves and their family,” Ritter said. 

Paula reports on groundbreaking legal decisions in Washington State and on trends in crime and law enforcement. She’s been at KNKX since 1989 and has covered the Law and Justice beat for the past 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.