After years of failed attempts, Virginia is legalizing switchblades

Published 7:15 pm Thursday, March 24, 2022

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By Graham Moomaw

Virginia’s last two governors vetoed efforts to soften the state’s longstanding ban on switchblades.

But the easy-to-open knives will soon be legal after Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed a switchblade bill that passed the politically divided General Assembly with overwhelming support.

Widely outlawed in the 1950s due to the perception they were the preferred weapon of street gangs and juvenile delinquents, proponents have rebranded switchblades as “automatic knives.” They argue the knives have many common uses, especially for tradesmen and first responders who may need to cut something with only one hand free, and little connection to crime. 

The bill that got near-unanimous support from state lawmakers simply removes switchblades from a list of weapons Virginians are banned from possessing or selling. While presenting the bill to colleagues, Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington, said switchblades have no business being lumped in with all the other dangerous-sounding but obscure weapons the state has seen fit to ban.

“A switchblade, in my opinion, doesn’t belong on the same list with ballistic knives, throwing stars or ‘oriental darts,’” Pillion said in a Senate committee hearing. “They are not projectile weapons and are not much different than a folding pocket knife.”

It’s not clear how strictly the anti-switchblade law has been enforced, but violations were classified as the lightest type of misdemeanor offense, punishable only by a fine of up to $250.

Pillion told his colleagues Virginia was one of just six states to still ban the knives. Pillion also pitched his proposal as a “jobs bill,” saying he was bringing it on behalf of a growing knife and sword distributor in Southwest Virginia.

In an interview, Alex Martin, part of the family that runs Marion-based Blue Ridge Knives, said the ban ending July 1 means the company will now be able to supply automatic knives to dealers across the country.

“It’s good for the knife industry,” Martin said. “There’s a lot of states now that have legalized automatics and I just want to congratulate Mr. Glenn Youngkin for signing the bill for us.”

Blue Ridge Knives hired the lobbying firm Kemper Consulting to help push for the ban to be lifted.

The lifting of the ban won’t create a switchblade free-for-all. The knives will still be listed among the weapons Virginians can’t carry concealed from view while in public.

Though skeptics raised some concerns the legislation wouldn’t do enough to keep switchblades away from minors, Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said he didn’t see what all the fuss was about, because the knives were commonplace when he was young.

“I grew up in Washington D.C. in the 40s and 50s and almost every schoolkid had a switchblade knife,” Saslaw said. “And you played mumblety-peg, throw it to stick in trees. I don’t ever remember anybody being stabbed by a pocket switchblade knife.”

Philip Van Cleave, president of the gun-rights group Virginia Citizens Defense League, testified in favor the bill, saying switchblades can be useful for people with “physical issues.”

“Like maybe only one arm or very weak hands,” Van Cleave said.

In 2017, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed a bill that would have allowed concealed carrying of switchblades for professional or recreational purposes. At the time, McAuliffe said “legalizing the concealed carry of switchblade knives would needlessly endanger the lives of Virginians.”

Two years later, former Gov. Ralph Northam vetoed a more industry-focused switchblade bill that would’ve allowed manufacturer and distributors to have switchblades as long as they were only sold in other states.

“If switchblade knives are too dangerous to be sold in Virginia, we should not facilitate their sale and distribution in other states,” Northam said at the time.

While pitching his fellow senators this year, Pillion said he sees little danger that legalized switchblades will lead to more knife crime.

“The most common knife used in a crime is by far the kitchen knife,” he said. “Which is universally found in every household.”

Youngkin’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the bill signing.