Texas’ New Knife Law: a Bipartisan Stab at Criminal Justice Reform

(CN) – While the nation watched as Hurricane Harvey dumped a biblical deluge upon Houston, officials in Texas quietly implemented a new bipartisan law that expands the kinds of knives Texans can legally carry.

Under the law that went into effect Sept. 1, Texans are free to carry Bowie knives, machetes, even swords and spears, provided they are not in a location-restricted place, like a polling location, bar or church. The blades in those locations cannot be longer than 5.5 inches.

One might think that the state with the slogan “Don’t mess with Texas” is just being itself with its new knife law, known as HB 1935. However, in the weeks since the law went into effect, little has changed. Consumers are not buying up the biggest knives they can find and police officers have not changed their tactics.

Instead, Texas joins a handful of states in the union that have reformed their knife laws. And at a time when the partisan divide is widening between Americans, these reforms often come with bipartisan support.

“Part of it is that Republicans perceive this sort of as a Second Amendment issue and see it in the traditional you-ought-to-be-able-to-carry-whatever-it-is-you-want-to-carry-to-defend-yourself issue” said Todd Rathner, lobbyist for the organization Knife Rights, which helped guide the legislation through. “And then Democrats see this as criminal justice reform.”

In Knife Rights’ effort to roll back laws it sees as restrictive, it has received support from across the political spectrum, Rathner said, from the National Rifle Association to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Rathner said Democratic lawmakers representing urban areas often support knife reform because it lessens the reasons for police officers have for stopping and searching individuals.

The concern stems from the 2015 death of Freddie Grey, who was stopped by police in Baltimore while carrying what appeared to be an illegal knife. Grey died after being severely injured in police custody and his death sparked protests in the city.

Indeed, if it wasn’t for the effort of the bill’s Democratic co-sponsor – Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston –HB 1935 would not have become law, Rathner said.

In the spring, the Texas bill that would have struck the term “illegal knife” from the state’s codes – thereby legalizing blades like stilettos and throwing knives – slid through its committee unanimously.

But on May 1, as the bill was about to head to the full Texas House of Representatives, a student at the University of Texas at Austin went on a campus stabbing spree with a large knife, killing one and injuring three.

Rathner said the reaction to the attack was a “dramatic emotional wave.” The fate of HB 1935 was in jeopardy.

“It’s fascinating but some of the Republicans were reluctant to move the bill in the wake of this stabbing,” Rathner said. “Not the Republican sponsor, but the Republicans in the House were starting to tell the sponsor, ‘Maybe you should wait until next year. Let’s not do this.’”

If the bill died, those working to pass the bill, like Knife Rights, would have had to wait until 2019 to try again, because the Texas Legislature meets every other year.

But Dutton, who represents a district in the eastern part of Houston, proposed an amendment that treats knives with blades over 5.5 inches the same way Texas law treats firearms: prohibiting their carry in places like courthouses, hospitals and sporting events.

The bill cleared the Texas House on May 9, with only one lawmaker voting in opposition. The bill passed the state Senate on May 24, again with one dissenting vote. Gov. Greg Abbott signed it into law the next month.

The result, Rathner said, is a state law that is comparable to some of the freest knife laws from around the nation. However, Knife Rights considers the legislation it lobbied for in over recent years in places like Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Utah and Arizona complete knife reforms.

“Texas, in our opinion, remains incomplete, because we want to go back and get rid of the five-and-a-half-inch restriction,” Rathner said. “And we believe that in 2019, we’ll be in a position to do that.”

The laws needed to be changed, Rathner said, because large knives are used by Americans every day.

People carry them when they go camping. They throw a fillet knife into their boat when fishing to process the day’s catch.

“Almost every kitchen knife is over five inches,” Rathner said.

He said the prohibition on swords, spears and Bowie knives were rolled back because the law had no definition of those blades and doing so made a code that spoke clearly.

“Where does a knife end and a sword begin?” he said. “And who is going to determine that? A police officer on the street, some prosecutor or some judge or some jury is going to have to sort out where a knife ends, a pocket knife ends, and a sword begins.”

On the ground, the implementation of the new blade-length provision has had little effect on law enforcement. Mitch Slaymaker, deputy executive director of Texas Municipal Police Association, said police officers around the state were briefed on the law – as they always are at the end of the legislative session about the new laws going into effect.

Otherwise, TMPA – the largest police association in Texas which provides lobbying, training and legal aid – thinks little will change with the law.

“It’s going to be business as usual,” Slaymaker said.

The police organization saw little change to the numbers of attacks on officers with bladed weapons. And when switchblades were legalized in 2013, the number of attacks on police officers with blades did not rise.

Large blades are also easier for officers to see, unlike concealed weapons in pockets and waistbands.

“Officers are more hurt with things they can’t see than things they can see,” Slaymaker said.

Even in the case of a violation of Texas’ knife law, the criminal justice system has often exercised prosecutorial discretion.

“In our overburdened criminal justice system right now, a lot of times county attorneys and district attorneys simply weren’t taking those cases anyways because they’re overwhelmed,” Slaymaker said.

He said most kids in Texas get a pocket knife by age 10. Seeing a pocket clip nestled into the corner of someone’s jean pocket was not enough to stop someone when Slaymaker worked as a police officer. He retired as a sergeant after 20 years.

But it’s not just pocket knives. Texas’ association with large knives extends back to its founding with a certain Jim Bowie. Even before his death at the Alamo, Bowie became a frontier legend of his day when a duel along the Mississippi River devolved into a brawl and his knife – the first Bowie knife – meted out frontier justice.

Within a few years, Bowie knives became must-carry weapons in the early 1800s, according to Bruce Winders, director of education and curation at the Alamo. He said they became an expression of culture.

“It became associated with values that Americans saw in themselves at the time,” Winders said. “The need to defend one’s honor. The manliness to defend oneself if attacked. A fierceness and aggressiveness that made up part of the American character of the time.”

But the political justice system didn’t always view Bowie knives with the same laissez-faire approach as it does in 2017.

Winders said the Bowie knife was banned in Tennessee in 1838, as it was in many other states soon after. Decades later, the Texas Supreme Court wrote in its 1859 decision in Cockrum v. State that unlike swords that can be parried and guns that could miss, a Bowie knife “is the instrument of almost certain death.”

And although the Bowie knife played a large role in the history of America and Texas, the Lone Star State’s old law only allowed its carry if people were in historical garb or in a theatrical production, Winders said.

If the law is drastically changing the kinds of knives Texans buy, “sales are not reflecting it,” said Troney Toler, president of Knives Plus, a knife shop in Amarillo, Texas.

Toler said some Texans might keep bigger knives in their trucks, but he doesn’t expect to see Bowie knives on hips.

About one or two people a week have walked through his doors looking at daggers or push daggers – small knives whose handle is perpendicular to the blade, designed as a small, self-defense blade – but otherwise it’s been quiet.

Before the new law, only police were allowed to carry those kinds of blades.

It is nothing like four years ago when Texas legalized automatic knives, knives that spring open when a button in the handle is pressed.

“My God, that’s all we sold,” Toler said.

The law, Toler said, helps ranchers who might forget they stashed their machete in the back of their trucks. Based on conversations he’s had with lawyers, Toler said charges of breaking knife laws are often tacked-on crimes after police officers catch a person for something like behaving disorderly while drunk or running from law enforcement.

“Very, very seldom can I ever think, except for maybe one case, that somebody got arrested because they had a knife,” Toler said. “They were doing something else that brought attention to them by the police and that’s why they got arrested and then the knife was a tack-on or add-on crime, I’d say in 90 percent of the cases.”

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