New law April 12: At state level, knives no longer weapons unless used as weapon

Home rule still applies; some municipalities' bans continue

Paul Comstock
ThisWeek
Ephraim Lee, assistant retail manager at Black Wing Shooting Center, 3722 Marysville Road in Delaware, shows a pair of knives that are included in the state's new knife law that will go into effect April 12. The top one is a butterfly knife. The bottom is an out-the-front automatic knife.

CORRECTION: The effective date of Senate Bill 140 is April 12. The earlier version of this story incorrectly said it would go into effect April 10.

Rick Hinderer wants to add to his business with new employees, new machinery and possibly an expanded building, and a new Ohio law will allow him to bring his plans to fruition.

The state's knife-law reform bill, Senate Bill 140, will take effect April. 12.

SB 140 repeals a statewide ban on the manufacture and sale of automatically opening pocket or folding knives and defines any knife or cutting instrument as a weapon only if it is used as a weapon. That new designation will allow carrying any knife concealed under state law.

>> Central Ohio municipalities share knife laws, plans <<

Proponents say SB 140 has multiple advantages that might not be obvious, such as reducing police profiling of minorities, keeping jobs in Ohio that otherwise might go out of state and aligning the law with 21st-century knife designs and uses.

State Sen. Kristina Roegner (R-Hudson), who helped sponsor the bill, said it had bipartisan support in the Statehouse, with only one dissenting vote in the Senate, and those testifying on its behalf in the House and Senate included Gary Daniels of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

Hinderer also testified on behalf of the bill. His company, Hinderer Knives, has 17 employees and manufactures custom knives in the village of Shreve in Wayne County.

He told ThisWeek his knives have become popular among such first responders as paramedics, who increasingly asked him to produce an automatic-opening knife – one that could be opened with one hand, with the blade activated by a spring.

Todd Rathner said he knows why paramedics would want such a knife.

Rathner is a lobbyist for Knife Rights, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Arizona that has promoted knife-law reform nationally. He also testified in favor of SB 140.

"I've had paramedics say to me, 'When I've got my finger (on you to stop your bleeding), I've got to be able to cut the seat belt off you with one hand,' " Rathner said.

On display at Black Wing Shooting Center in Delaware are a few knives from Benchmade: (from left) a 3350 Mini Infidel double-action out-the-front automatic knife, a Casbah automatic folding knife, an Autocrat out-the-front automatic knife and an 85 Billet Ti Bali-Song butterfly knife.

When the question of auto knives first came up, Hinderer told his customers they couldn't be manufactured legally in Ohio.

Knives that aren't covered in SB 140, Rathner said, are ballistic knives, which have a detachable blade that could be ejected by a trigger, lever or switch somewhere on the handle.

Ballistic knives are listed under ORC Section 2923.11 as a dangerous ordnance.

Over time, uses have evolved

Hinderer and Rathner said most of the nation's laws that restrict knives were passed nearly 60 years ago, and needs have changed.

"Knife designs have evolved to meet practical requirements," Hinderer said.

He said his company makes folding knives with blades ranging from 1.5 to 4 inches long.

"If you get above 4 inches, it's hard to carry. It's not as useful,” he said. “An 8-inch folding knife, that's going to be a pretty much oddity."

That focus on knife practicality was echoed by Daniels of the ACLU. 

"If you do see someone carrying a knife, there are all kinds of reasons why people might carry knives that have absolutely nothing to do with violence,” he said. “A lot of blue-collar workers, a lot of factory workers, a lot of warehouse workers (use knives). I was a warehouse worker myself in college."

Hinderer said he agrees public perception isn't always accurate.

"Most people, when they think of an automatic or switchblade knife, they think of the Italian stilettos ... which is really the reason the laws were passed banning them in the first place, because of a movie ("West Side Story") depicting an Italian stiletto. 'This is an evil knife. We must ban it.' That's the reason most of the automatic-knife laws prohibiting manufacture and use were passed ... because of that movie," Hinderer said.

Public opposition has been minimal

Roegner said no one testified against SB 140 in House and Senate hearings. Although a number of Ohio House Democrats voted for SB 140, Roegner said, 25 voted against it.

ThisWeek emailed several of the 25, and the only one to respond was state Rep. David Leland (D-Columbus).

“This law lets everyone in the state hide a switchblade or a combat knife on their person wherever they go. Making it legal to carry any of these deadly weapons concealed does not make Ohioans safer,” Leland said.

Although crime statistics on knife use aren't available in Ohio, Rathner said, "we know anecdotally from law enforcement that crimes involving knives are almost always involving kitchen knives because they are so readily available."

"In Ohio, we don't have any kind of robust data collection with regard to convictions and arrests,” Daniels said. “There's not like a central database."

Daniels testified before the House Criminal Justice Committee on Nov. 21.

"Still, it is hard to believe the problems experienced in other states with regard to enforcement of outdated and unnecessary knife laws are not being repeated here," he told the committee.

Racial discrimination considered

The ACLU testified in support of SB 140 in part because of "the demonstrated use of such laws by law enforcement to harass, intimidate, stop and search and prosecute people of color and others,” Daniels said.

“Research in New York City revealed people of color account for up to 88% of arrests for mere possession of such knives in that city," he told the committee.

Rathner told ThisWeek that the New York City practice was "a good example of how these laws have been abused in other states."

New York had a state law banning "gravity" knives, which open by allowing the blade to descend from a hollow handle, he said.

New York City police officers were trained to open regular pocket knives by flipping them with an action of the wrist, Rathner said. When the officers could open a knife that way, he said, they would call the routine knife a gravity knife and make an arrest.

New York City was the only jurisdiction in the state using the law, which was repealed last year after Knife Rights lobbied for its removal, Rathner said.

Daniels said even stopping people to check for knives was an abuse of the law in New York City.

"We know the general pattern of the entire criminal legal system is if you're a person of color, the outcome is going to be worse and many times substantially worse for you than if you are a white person under the same circumstances," he said.

Many knives seen as tools

"A mechanical knife is simply not a tool that should be seen first and foremost as a weapon," said state Rep. Scott Wiggam (R-Wooster), who represents Hinderer's Ohio House district.

"There's simply no reason in the state of Ohio to force unneeded conflict between a law-enforcement officer and the citizen walking down the street simply because they have a (knife) in their pocket," Wiggam said.

Rick Hinderer, whose Shreve-based company, Hinderer Knives, has 17 employees, manufactures custom knives. He said when Senate Bill 140 goes into effect April 12, he will manufacture an automatic-opening knife to meet a demand from first responders and rescue personnel. That will mean new employees and machinery and possibly a new building at his company, he said.

Hinderer said SB 140 means he could manufacture an auto knife and keep the jobs in Ohio.

"I'm going to go on full bore ahead on adding it to my product line,” he said. “I'm already looking at expansion just because of that. I know that as soon as those products get in the pipeline, it's going to expand our business. That's a certainty. I'm going to be adding machines, employees and probably adding to my building. It's going to have a big impact just in my local area with new hires and stuff."

SB 140 also clears up what Hinderer called a very vague law.

"You could own (auto knives under the previous law), but you couldn't carry them concealed. SB 140 takes away that cloud. ... It makes it very clear on the carrying of auto knives," he said.

Roegner said Hinderer's business is in her Senate district, which sparked her interest in reforming Ohio’s knife laws.

"To me, that actually was the genesis of why I originally got interested in this bill, because here we have a manufacturing company in Ohio, in my Senate district, that isn't allowed to manufacture knives right here in the state of Ohio,” she said. “To me it was a jobs thing. It was economic."

Rick Hinderer of Shreve-based Hinderer Knives designed this XM-18 model knife when he was a volunteer firefighter/EMT. "A lot of my experiences with the fire-service work went into the design of this knife. This is why it is such a popular knife with first responders and rescue personnel," he said. The knife has a 3.5-inch blade and opens manually. When Senate Bill 140 goes into effect April 12, he also will produce the knife as an automatic opener.

If Hinderer's company had landed a contract for auto knives, it would have had to leave Ohio and relocate across the border simply to manufacture these knives, Wiggam said.

Roegner said former Sen. Joe Uecker (R-Loveland) sponsored SB 140. Uecker since has left office to work for the Ohio Department of Transportation.

Uecker said trade-union officials representing electricians and plumbers told him "current law in Ohio made many of their union members 'felons' simply because their work necessitated they have a knife that could be opened and closed safely with one hand.”

“I was truly surprised and impressed that so many legislators saw the multiple aspects of the bill and supported it," he said.

He also credited Rathner for being "able to keep the bill alive even after I left the legislature."

Rathner said that in promoting SB 140 and working closely with legislators, including Uecker and Roegner, he spent more time in Columbus than he has in any other state.

And more work remains to be done, he said.

Beware: Municipalities' laws may vary

Even after April 12, Rathner said, more restrictive knife laws enacted by cities will continue to be in effect, and Ohio needs a statute that says the state is the sole authority on knife law.

Such is the case with the state’s firearms laws, which, through Ohio Revised Code Section 9.68, supersede municipal laws. But Section 9.68 refers specifically to firearms.

Without such a statute, Roegner said, someone who uses a knife professionally – such as a carpenter or laborer – could continue to face legal problems when traveling between cities.

Daniels said local laws taking precedent over state law is a "home rule" legal feature in Ohio, one often accompanied by complexity.

"At any given time, there seems to be only a couple of experts on home rule in all of the state of Ohio. And they're always law professors,” he said. “And it doesn't flow evenly, at least in my somewhat limited experience with home rule and how it intersects.

"It seems to, in many cases, be entirely up to the courts. That is, there is not like a pattern here where, 'OK, if X is subject to home rule, then it makes sense that Y and Z will also be.' It seems again to be all over the map, and that's what I've been told by people who know it better than I do," he said.

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