Changes in Knife Laws in Pennsylvania
As we mentioned in our history of automatic knives article, the precursors to OTFs have existed for a very long time. From as far back as 1700s-era England, people have looked for ways in which to open a secured blade in a very short amount of time. However, that convenience is also what led to restrictions on automatic knives in the United States. Fortunately, those restrictions have loosened in recent years, and a new bill that was recently signed into law in Pennsylvania has ushered in more knife-related freedoms for the people of The Keystone State in particular and the nation as a whole.
In this article, we will discuss the history of restrictions on automatic knives in general and OTFs in particular; the changing regulatory landscape; and the impact the recent signing into law of HB-1929 PA has made.
L 85-623 and the History of Automatic Knife Restrictions in America
Due to the rising popularity of automatic knives and a rash of crimes involving them, the 1950s saw some American pundits calling for restrictions or outright bans on these handy tools. Their goals were realized in 1958 with the passage of L 85-623 (aka, the Federal Switchblade Act), which made illegal the manufacture, distribution, and sale of switchblades across state lines.
Note the phrase “across state lines.” Despite its longevity, the Federal Switchblade Act never completely outlawed automatic knives. The only places where you couldn’t have them at all were Washington, D.C., Native American sovereign territories, Navy vessels, government-owned planes, and American territories. The Act simply forbid the making, shipping, and selling of these sorts of knives between states.
While the Act certainly gave automatic knives a poor reputation, it didn’t restrict them *per se*. Instead, it left the question of their legality to the states — and further developments a half-century later would see the federal government relinquish even more control.
2009 and Section 1244 of the Federal Switchblade Act
When L 85-623 was passed, it already contained a number of notable exceptions, such as …
- the sale or transport of so-called switchblades when listed specifically part of a contract with the Armed Forces
- a member of the Armed Forces using a switchblade as part of his job
- a one-armed individual possessing and/or transporting a switchblade so long as its blade was under three inches
In 2009, Congress carved out yet another exception, which applied to “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.” This single line had the effect of making virtually all automatic knives legal, at least federally speaking.
Automatic Knives and the States
Once the federal government decided to take a hands-off approach to the vast majority of automatic knives, the question of their legality fell to the states, most of which gave them their blessing. Seven imposed their own restrictions, such as California requiring blades to have a certain maximum length, Kentucky imposing an age limit, and Washington only allowing first responders, police officers, and military personnel to carry one. However, some states essentially outlawed them altogether.
There are several states whose laws seemed to make ownership, purchase, transport, or carrying of any sort of automatic knife illegal. They include:
- New Mexico
- New Jersey
Perhaps we should say “included,” because the situation changed as of January 2, 2023: Pennsylvania has made the possession of automatic knives legal.
HB 1929: The Text of the Bill
Pennsylvania’s legal code contains a section called Title 18 (Crimes and Offenses) that deals with crimes against people, the government, and property. As you very well may imagine, it’s dense and comprehensive, and its section on “offensive weapons” is what had labeled automatic knives legally dubious.
Section 908 (“Prohibited Offensive Weapons”) seeks to outlaw any “implement for the infliction of serious bodily injury which serves no common lawful purpose.” Some of the examples listed include:
- Machine guns
- Sawed-off shotguns
- Silenced firearms
Automatic knives were singled out in this list with language that defined them as just this sort of weapons (“any … dagger, knife, razor or cutting instrument, the blade of which is exposed in an automatic way by switch, push-button, spring mechanism, or otherwise.”) HB 1929 sought to eliminate this clause and was roundly successful in doing so.
The Bill's Passage and Legal Changes
Sponsored by Rep. Martin Causer (R), HB 1929 came up for a vote on November 3, 2022. According to advocacy group Knife Rights, the bill passed almost unanimously with only Rep. Christopher Quinn (R) voting against it. Governor Tom Wolf signed it into law soon after, and on January 2, 2023, automatic knives became legal to own as more than curios in Pennsylvania. However, as with most things, there was a catch.
HB 1929 only removed language from Section 908 and didn’t add any preemption language. As a legal term, preemption refers to a state law supplanting municipal ordinances in some certain way. Why does this matter? Local cities and municipalities in Pennsylvania may very well already have laws in place that make automatic knives illegal. Without a preemption in place, OTF and other automatic knife owners may find themselves running afoul of city ordinances even when they’re in compliance with state law. Remember: It’s always your responsibility to know what local laws apply.
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