A wave of legislative prohibitions of automatic knives in the 20th century that swept through many countries, has its origins in the United States of the 1950s. Just at that time in the US has become particularly popular automatic Italian stilettos. Until the 1950s, in the United States automatic Italian stilettos were not wide-spreaded.
The growth of their popularity has been inspired by following reasons. First, after the end of World War II from Europe began to return home American soldiers, who carried with them trophys: automatic Italian stilettos. Secondly, after the war in Italy revived the production of this type of knives and the main market for them have become the United States. Third, to the US market, after the war, came the firm LATAMA and its founder Sam Polinkovsky (Polk) made great efforts to promote and spread the Italian stilettos in USA, which marked the beginning of significant export sales of stilettos from Italy to the United States.
The result was a huge increase in the popularity of Italian automatic stilettos among young people, members of teenage gangs, collectors and fans of knives. All this occurred upon the background of growth of criminal activity among teenagers, united in gangs.
It should be noted that the USA had its own companies producing flick knives. It was Imperial, Colonial Knife Co., Schrade-Walden, George Schrade Knife Co., Boker. Moreover, automatic knives known in the United States from around 1850s. Thus, by themselves switchblades were not something new for Americans. Nevertheless, the difference was that produced in the United States, most of flick knives were utilitarian in nature, and are well suited for domestic purposes. In this regard, they were strikingly different from swift and predatory Italian stilettos, which blades, like Bayonet or Dagger were only good for the stabbing and inflicting deep penetrating wounds. In the everyday life of usual citizen Italian stilettos were almost useless. Incidentally, among other reasons, it is this feature of the Italian automatic stilettos, which mentioned Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, who offered the Congress to consider a bill to ban this type of knives.
Start of mass hysteria in the media about the dangers of automatic knives put the article “The Toy That Kills” by certain Jack Harrison Pollack, published in 1950 in the “Women’s Home Companion”, a widely read U.S. periodical of the day. Himself Jack Harrison Pollack is a former assistant of Democratic Senator Harley M. Kilgore, wrote speeches for Harry S. Truman who later became Senator, besides Jack Harrison Pollack was specializing in writing articles on various topics of the day, devoted to the social ills of society.
In the article “The Toy That Kills”, the author assures his readers that the growing threat posed by automatic knives can cause deadly consequences for society. In particular, in one of its passages Pollack writes: “Designed for violence, deadly as a revolver – that’s the switchblade, the ‘toy’ youngsters all over the country are taking up as a fad. Press the button on this new version of the pocketknife and the blade darts out like a snake’s tongue. Action against this killer should be taken now”. To back up his charges, Pollack quoted an unnamed juvenile court judge as saying: “It’s only a short step from carrying a switchblade to gang warfare”.
During the 1950s, established U.S. newspapers as well as the sensationalist tabloid press joined forces in promoting the image of a young delinquent with a stiletto switchblade or flick knife. While the press focused on the switchblade as a symbol of youthful evil intent, the American public’s attention was attracted by lurid stories of urban youth gang warfare and the fact that many gangs were composed of lower class youth and/or racial minorities. The purported offensive nature of the stiletto switchblade combined with reports of knife fights, robberies, and stabbings by youth gangs and other criminal elements in urban areas of the United States generated continuing demands from newspaper editorial rooms and the public for new laws restricting the lawful possession and/or use of switchblade knives.
The result of this campaign was first law, passed in the state of New York, banning the sale or distribution of switchblade knives in hopes of reducing gang violence.. That same year, Democratic Rep. James J. Delaney of New York authored the first bill submitted to the U.S. Congress banning the manufacture and sale of switchblades., adding that in 1953, he conducted research by sending a request to heads of police of 40 large and medium cities, and received the answer that switchblade knives were typically used in the commission of crimes in towns and cities. At that time this legislative initiative failed.
Meanwhile, such a popular theme could not stay without attention by the American “Dream Factory” – Hollywood has produced a number of films “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), “Crime in the Streets” (1956) “12 Angry Men” (1957), “The Delinquents” (1957) “High School Confidential” (1958), this series has been added by Broadway musical “West Side Story”. All films exploited all the same image of a young offender with the same attribute: switchblade knife as a symbol of teenage violence, sex and crime. Of course, newspaper and magazine articles, complemented by visuals from the film, added fuel to the fire.
There is no doubt that a number of politicians have been happy to use the inflated topic, to gain some score in the eyes of their voters, playing card of fighter against crime and the guardian of public safety. At the same time, the print media have successfully raised their circulation by publishing materials that can attract the attention of ordinary people by “fried” facts.
New attack on automatic knives have been made in 1957. Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver tried to pass the bill to ban the import and possession of automatic knives. Resistance from the side of companies producing knives were weak. Its negative position on this issue expressed only company Colonial Knife Co. and Schrade-Walden Inc. This is most likely due to the fact that the production of automatic knife was not the most significant part of the business for most knife making companies and they did not have such a large lobby as manufacturers of firearms. Nevertheless, the bill failed, not having received the support of representatives of the Departments of Commerce and Justice, who felt that this legislative initiative is not justified and is an invasion in the regulation of commercial activities between US states.
The next attempt was made in 1958. This time, a new bill was introduced by Senator of the Democratic Party of Illinois Peter F. Mack, Jr. The legislative initiative was aimed at reducing criminal activity of gangs in Chicago and other major cities in the state.
Hearings to ban automatic knives accompanied by the following views. Senator from the State of New York Frank J. Pino from Brooklyn said: “Actually, these knives are, I would say inherently dangerous, they have only one purpose. They are just deadly. They are lethal weapons, and they are suited for crime, that is all they are suited for. So that the sportsmen really have nothing substantial to complain about. But they do complain. “I know about these complaints in connection with my bill to restrict the sale of ammunition in New York.” “This is a problem that we have in all of the big cities. And it is a question of weighing the conveniences of a group against the welfare and the health and the lives of many, many people. That is all it is.”
In his speech before the House commerce committee in April 17th, 1958, Senator James J. Delaney said: “Every day our newspapers report numerous muggings and attacks, most of them involving knives. Can we sit by complacently and ignore the bloodshed in our streets? Doing away with switchblades will not be a cure-all for the crime wave sweeping the Nation, but it will remove one of the favorite weapons of our juvenile and criminal element. ” “”… it was not until about 1949 or 1950 that these things came into common usage. In the gathering of juvenile gangs and clans, nearly every one of them has a switchblade. It is a ritual with some of them to carry switchblades. It is not only the boys, but I was surprised to find that a great number of the girls carry them also.””
Another backer of the ban had an even more creative view of history than Delaney. U.S. Senator Frederick G. Payne of Maine asked a witness, “Isn’t it true that that type of knife, switchblade knife, in its several different forms, was developed, actually, abroad, and was developed by the so-called scum, if you want to call it, or the group who are always involved in crime?” The witness, New York State Justice John E. Cone, co-founder of the Committee to Ban Teen-Age Weapons, enthusiastically agreed.
The most outspoken proponent of a ban chose a sexual metaphor to express his anxieties. Representative Sidney R. Yates of Illinois testified, “Vicious fantasies of omnipotence, idolatry… barbaric and sadistic atrocities, and monstrous violations of accepted values spring from the cult of the weapon and the switchblade knife is included in this. “Minus switchblade knives and the distorted feeling of power they beget — power that is swaggering, reckless, and itching to express itself in violence — our delinquent adolescents would be shorn of one of their most potent means of incitement to crime.”
Congressman Yates said, “newspapers and magazines are filled with descriptions of gang fights, holdups and stabbings, committed by teenagers, and running through almost all such stories is the switchblade knife. The gruesome similarity in detail related by these stories is relieved only by the horror that each one reflects individually… The switchblade knife has become the symbol, as well as the weapon, of the teen-age gang.”
In order to justify their point of view, the senators cited the results of inquiries to heads of police from various states and cities. San Francisco police chief Francis J. Ahern wrote “‘… a substantial amount of our juvenile crimes of violence involve the use of this type of knife.’ He further stated that since the enactment of a local ordinance, the use of such knives in crimes has diminished.” San Francisco sure was lucky to have such law-abiding violent criminals.
Senator Kefauver quoted Boston police chief James F. Daley as having written, “… these weapons are specifically designed as a vicious insidious weapon of assault, and can be devoted to no legitimate use in the everyday life of law-abiding citizens.”
Besides, Senator Kefauver also cited the following statistics: “In New York City in 1956, there was an increase of 92.1 percent of those under 16 arrested for the possession of dangerous weapons, one of the most common kind being the switchblade knife; and also in New York 36.9 [percent] of the felonious assaults, many involving use of switchblade knives, were committed by those under 16. On the national level, 29.6 percent of the total arrested for carrying dangerous weapons was attributable to young persons under the age of 18. A more shocking and striking figure is that 43.2 percent of the total robberies committed in the United States last year were by persons under 21 years of age. A switchblade knife is very often part of the perpetrator’s equipment in a robbery.” As can be seen from this quotation, no real statistics on the use of automatic knife as a weapon of offense had been introduced, as the senator mentioned himself before. Those. the role of the automatic knife as a weapon of the perpetrator, was just what is called a “far-fetched”.
Adequate data on the use of switchblades in the crimes were received only from acting police chief of the Kansas City, Missouri, who has professional integrity and lack of political commitment and obsequiousness. Parker reported that in the entire year 1956, a total of 15 switchblade knives were used in assaults and robberies in Kansas City (just over one per month). An additional 80 switchblades were taken from suspects booked for investigation of crimes (well under two per week). “In addition,” he wrote, “there were 10 to 12 cases in which these knives were used by one juvenile to take money from another [less than one per month], and during the same period there were 6 cases of cuttings [one every two months] as well as several cases where knives were thrown by one juvenile at another. In a city of nearly half a million population, these three dozen switchblade crimes, misdemeanors, and incidents of horseplay in one year hardly constituted a crime wave.
These lonely facts from Kansas City did not interest the Congress. They found much more fascinating the lurid sensationalist stories and editorials in Life magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, many daily newspapers, and even on radio and television “news.”
The only prominent public agencies with the courage to oppose the anti-switchblade measure were the two that would be charged with enforcing it: the Department of Justice and the Department of Commerce. They argued that the measure would be both costly to the government and burdensome to law- abiding citizens, yet it would accomplish no useful purpose. Moreover, it would extend the powers of the federal government into areas that had hitherto been the exclusive domain of the states. They were joined in their opposition by the Bureau of the Budget.
Deputy Attorney General William P. Rogers wrote, “The Department of Justice is unable to recommend enactment of this legislation. “The committee may wish to consider whether the problem to which this legislation is addressed is one properly within the police powers of the various States. As you know, Federal law now prohibits the interstate transportation of certain inherently dangerous articles such as dynamite and nitroglycerin on carriers also transporting passengers. The instant measures would extend the doctrine upon which such prohibitions are based by prohibiting the transportation of a single item which is not inherently dangerous but requires the introduction of a wrongful human element to make it so. “Switchblade knives in the hands of criminals are, of course, potentially dangerous weapons. However, since they serve useful and even essential purposes in the hands of persons such as sportsmen, shipping clerks, and others engaged in lawful pursuits, the committee may deem it preferable that they be regulated at the State rather than the Federal level.”
Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks wrote, “The general intent of these legislative proposals appears to be to improve crime prevention by control of the use of the switchblade knife as a weapon of assault. This approach gives rise to certain objections. One is that, at best, it is an indirect approach which addresses itself to only one of many implements useable by an assailant. This casts doubt upon the resulting effectiveness in the reduction of crime in relation to its enforcement problems… “While this proposed legislation recognizes that there are legitimate uses that have need for switchblade knives, the exemptions would appear to assume that the most significant of these uses lie in Government activities. To us, this ignores the needs of those who derive and augment their livelihood from the ‘outdoor’ pursuits of hunting, fishing, trapping, and of the country’s sportsmen, and many others. In our opinion there are sufficient of these that their needs must be considered.”
The Department of Defense, by contrast, pusillanimously endorsed the ban, but only on condition that it be declared exempt itself. It was, as were all other local, state, and federal government agencies.
Oddly, most of the backers of the anti-switchblade bills agreed with Secretary Weeks that prohibiting switchblades would accomplish little in the way of curtailing crime. They readily admitted that their measure was largely symbolic. Being politicians, however, they knew that empty but highly visible symbolic acts garner far more votes than low-profile but effective reforms. They also knew that it was politically safer to criminalize the actions of a couple of small manufacturers, rather than to punish the juvenile delinquency of the children of some of their constituents.
As a result, Bill by Senator Peter F. Mack, Jr. was passed by Congress and became the law known as Switchblade Knife Act of 1958. The law makes no distinction between blades of utilitarian purposes and such as bayonet or dagger, instead, ban hit all automatic knives, as a class. Interestingly, the sale and possession of knives, stilettos and other “assault knives” with fixed blade were absolutely legal in most jurisdictions. This is further proof that the particular prohibition of automatic knives has nothing to do with security and reduce crime.
As a measure directed against violence and crime, the prohibition of automatic knives in the United States does not justify itself, because youth gangs used knives anyway, albeit not automatic, and moreover, widely used firearms.