The monthly Bill Goodman Gun & Knife Show at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds has just about everything a weapons collector could want: Handguns and high-powered rifles, tomahawks and tasers – in colors that range from survivalist camo to hot pink.
But perhaps the most surprising find is at the table of dealer Eva Simmons: a 1970s-era switchblade, the kind with a black-and-silver handle and a curlicue guard. These were illegal in Tennessee until recently.
“It’s just a one-button deploy,” Simmons says as she shows off one. “Just your regular switchblades that you see in ‘West Side Story.’”
Gangs, street fights. Sharks and Jets.
Knife enthusiasts say that one Broadway musical cemented switchblades’ bad reputation, and took them off shelves for a generation.
Blame, Leonard Bernstein.
“Plays and movies like ‘West Side Story’ fed the political hysteria to restrict these knives,” says Doug Ritter, an Arizona survival expert and knife designer who has led efforts to repeal knife laws in statehouses around the country. “There was never any rational basis for it, just as there isn’t today.”
Ritter and other members of a growing “knife rights” movement say it’s time to bring the switchblade back. Like gun rights activists – who have convinced lawmakers in many states to make it easier to buy and carry military-style rifles and other powerful firearms – supporters of knife rights say they should be free to carry any blade they want, with few restrictions.
“We tend to think of the Second Amendment as a firearms-related amendment,” Ritter says. “The Second Amendment doesn’t say firearms. It says arms. … So why should not people be able to own the knives they want?”
Their efforts follow a decades-long decline in knife crime, one that both knife rights supporters and its skeptics say has left many people with a skewed conception of how dangerous switchblades and other knives are. Even as the nation’s murder rate spiked in the ‘70s and ‘80s, those committed with knives fell steadily, making them rare today.
Terry Ashe, a retired law enforcement officer and the executive director of the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association, believes knives are no longer as attractive to criminals as they once were.
“It’s not as common as it was years ago because there are more guns now,” he says.
Crimes Of Passion
Last year, knives were used in only 20 of the 337 murders committed in the state, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. They turned up in fewer than one in five aggravated assaults and even less frequently in rapes and robberies.
Still, police were at first cool to the idea of lifting Tennessee’s ban on switchblades and similar knives. But law enforcement groups agreed to stand aside after state lawmakers and knife rights advocates compromised, by making the penalties for knife crimes tougher.
Ashe says it was an acceptable tradeoff, given that knives are generally used in crimes of passion. In those circumstances, the availability of a switchblade would make little difference.
“There are tons of knives in homes that are all sizes, from steak knives to butcher knives, and most of the knife assaults you see actually happen in a domestic situation,” he says.
Knife rights advocates also argued Tennessee’s switchblade rules were outdated because the ban only applied to knives that rely on internal springs to open. Manufacturers figured out a long time ago how to get around that law by working in other technologies, such as a lever, to open the blade.
“I’ve pulled out a knife before and opened it up and somebody said, ‘Ooh, why are you carrying a switchblade?’ And it’s like, it wasn’t even a switchblade. It was a manual knife,” says Chris Tenpenny, who owns Nashville Sporting Arms. “You know, there’s just a lot of strange perceptions out there.”
Tenpenny says the push to repeal knife laws has opened up the market. Sportsmen who could not own a switchblade legally have started to consider buying them, while knife makers have started developing pricier and more sophisticated lines.
When Tenpenny bought his gun and knife store four years ago, he carried fewer than a dozen models. Now his stock fills two display cases, with more piled up behind the counter. They include basic pocketknives that Boy Scouts would use, a butterfly knife you might see in a martial arts film and high-end blades decorated with electric-blue shocks of anodized titanium or the rippling wave patterns of Damascus steel. The latter sell for hundreds of dollars. “Which to some people is crazy, but, you know, people spend a lot of money on jewelry,” Tenpenny says.
But there’s still one weapon you won’t find on many shelves in Tennessee.
Brass knuckles. Those are still illegal.
At least for now.