With more and more states decriminalizing automatic knives (aka “switchblades”), knife enthusiasts are more interested than ever before in purchasing one of these knives. They often turn to online retailers, but that presents a sticky situation: federal law prohibits interstate commerce of autos (see a full explainer here).
This leaves many scratching their heads. For instance, if a buyer in Montana places an online order with a seller in New Hampshire, does federal law prohibit the otherwise-legal transaction?
BLADE addressed the issue with an expert team of panelists who have dealt extensively with knife laws. They include Jan Billeb of the American Knife & Tool Institute (AKTI), Doug Ritter of Knife Rights and Evan Nappen, an attorney and author who specializes in knife and gun rights cases.
Question: Doesn’t the Federal Switchblade Act ban the transport of an automatic knife across state lines?
BILLEB: The Federal Switchblade Act is widely misunderstood, as it only applies to interstate commerce—commercially selling automatic knives across state lines. It does not prohibit crossing state lines with an automatic knife. It also does not prohibit traveling by air with an automatic knife in your checked baggage. State law applies to those traveling by surface or air based on your location, which state you depart from, where you might pass through, and you need to be concerned that your knife is legal in any of those locations.
Question: Is legal to ship automatic knives through the mail?
RITTER: Shipping autos, balisongs, gravity knives and ballistic knives via the U.S. Post Office is generally illegal, with some very narrow exceptions—which an individual is unlikely able to take advantage of. You would be subject to fines and up to a year in jail, or both, for breaking this law. Any criminal intent involved ratchets up the penalties. We strongly suggest that individuals use only FedEx or UPS to ship these types of knives.
BILLEB: Never ship an automatic knife using the U.S. Postal Service. Federal law prohibits the shipment of ‘injurious articles’—which includes automatic knives. The penalty for breaking this law is a fine or imprisonment for not more than one year. However, there is no federal restriction on shipment of automatic knives by common/contract carriers, such as FedEx and UPS. When shipping an automatic knife, always use a private carrier such as FedEx and UPS. In fact, the American Knife & Tool Institute recommends that you do not ship knives by the U.S. Postal Service to avoid a possible issue over confusion of whether it is an automatic knife.
NAPPEN: If the law-abiding collector does not give up his or her constitutional rights and has taken the above measures, that person and their knives will have significant added protection from an unjust prosecution and property confiscation. The best way to avoid becoming a victim of anti-knife laws is to avoid being arrested in the first place and being prepared if you are arrested.
Question: Can a city, county or other municipality ban automatic knives even if they are legal at the state level?
BILLEB: There are states where automatics are legal, but city or political sub-division ordinances may provide otherwise and ban or limit autos or other types of knives. That situation can be possible unless the state’s constitution provides otherwise or there is a statewide preemption law. Accordingly, knife owners/users should [know] the laws where they live, work or travel.
RITTER: The better question—with a much shorter list—is: Which states preempt local jurisdictions from regulating knives? If there is no state preemption, then jurisdictions are free to make up their own restrictions. Preemption prevents enforcement of existing local knife ordinances and prohibits new ordinances more restrictive than state laws, which only serve to confuse or entrap law-abiding citizens traveling within or through the state. Preemption ensures residents and travelers can expect consistent enforcement of state knife laws everywhere in a state. In total, 10 states have now enacted preemption bills: Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin. Existing constitutional weapons preemption law covers knives in New Mexico and Wyoming. Elsewhere, there is no preemption covering knives, and owners should be wary of local regulations more restrictive than state law.