From the never thought we’d see it files: switchblades are legal to possess and carry in Pennsylvania as of January 2, 2023. Switchblades, otherwise known as automatic knives, have been illegal in Pennsylvania for decades. But, thanks to work by the folks at Knife Rights, the implausible happened, and PA residents can now carry and use auto knives legally.
Are Switchblades Legal?
Automatic knives have been illegal in much of the U.S. since the 1950s. However, many of those laws have been rolled back in recent years, largely due to the work of Knife Rights. To learn more about the history of automatic knife laws and what’s happening to change them, I contacted Doug Ritter, the founder of KnifeRights.org.
The History of Switchblade Laws in the United States
To start, let’s define a switchblade. A switchblade is a knife with a blade that springs out from the handle with the press of a button. These generally consist of either Out the Side (OTS) models, where the blades pivot open out of the handle just like a conventional folding knife, or Out the Front (OTF) models. An OTF has an enclosed handle, and the blade projects straight out through the front, or top, of the handle.
When asked about the background of switchblade laws in the US, Ritter explained:
“Switchblade knives date from the early- to mid-1800s and became quite popular in this country in the 1920s and ’30s. It wasn’t until the 1950s that they became legally problematic in many states. In 1950, a sensationalist article titled The Toy That Kills appeared in the Women’s Home Companion, a widely read U.S. periodical of the day.
“The article sparked a storm of controversy. It ultimately led to a nationwide campaign by political opportunists of the day that would eventually result in state laws restricting switchblade possession or carry and federal laws criminalizing the importation and interstate commerce in automatic-opening knives. Please read the article for more information.
“Politicians saw the switchblade controversy as an opportunity to capitalize on constant negative accounts of switchblades and their connection to violence and youth gangs. This coverage included not only magazine articles but also highly popular films of the mid-to-late 1950s, including Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Crime in the Streets (1956), 12 Angry Men (1957), The Delinquents (1957), High School Confidential (1958), and the 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story.
Eventually, about half the states enacted complete or partial bans on switchblades, and in 1958 the Federal Switchblade Act was enacted.”
Changing the Landscape
The various switchblade laws across the country remained largely unchallenged for decades. However, in 2009 Knife Rights was able to get an exemption added to the Federal Switchblade Act. This exemption kept one-hand and assisted openers from being classified as switchblades. This was a huge win for the knife-using community. As a result, assisted and one-hand opening knives are far more prevalent today. In fact, they are some of the more common style folding knives available.
Following the win at the federal level, Knife Rights started working on state regulations. The organization got its first success in New Hampshire in 2010 with the repeal of its switchblade ban. Since then, Knife Rights has spearheaded the repeal of switchblade bans in 19 other states. This includes the win in Pennsylvania this month. The organization has also worked on legislation at the local level with successful results in 150 cities and towns in 25 states.
When discussing the biggest obstacles to Knife Rights’ work, Ritter says that the old 1950s stigma—and West Side Story—still have a lingering effect with the negative stereotype many have about switchblades. This stereotype fuels many politicians to view switchblades as a weapon, not a tool like any other knife.
For this reason, educating state and local legislatures is an important part of Knife Rights’ function. This leads to another obstacle for the organization—the cost of passing legislation. Likewise, gaining traction on a repeal often takes years of work and lobbying.
What Does This Mean?
So what does that mean for you? Are switchblades legal where you live or not? An easy way to check is to look on the Knife Rights website. The website has a list of switchblade laws across the country and corresponding limitations that the organization updates regularly.
Knife Rights also has a LegalBlade App for Android and iOS that offers a good reference while traveling. It’s a great resource for knife laws in all 50 states and 40 major US cities. It is important to note that some states still have restrictions on carry—such as needing a concealed carry permit—even if they are otherwise legal to own.
Ritter doesn’t advise carrying one if you’re in one of the states that still prohibit switchblades.
He notes, “It’s not a problem until it becomes a problem.”
If you get arrested, you’re looking at expensive legal fees, possible jail time, and a criminal record. However, Knife Rights has a section on its website that offers advice to those who get arrested for carrying an automatic knife. Honestly, it’s worth reading for anyone carrying a switchblade knife, even in states where they are legal.
If you’re trapped in one of the states whose laws still prohibit you from owning or carrying a switchblade, don’t give up hope. The idea that Pennsylvania would legalize switchblades was an unexpected twist. But, thanks to Knife Rights, they are now legal in the state.
This isn’t a cause that most politicians will pursue on their own. But with the right education and encouragement, it can be done—as the folks at Knife Rights have repeatedly shown.
If you want to support their work, consider joining Knife Rights or donating to help the cause at KnifeRights.org.