By Michael Brick
AUSTIN, Texas — You never know what might happen when a lawmaker brings a gun to a knife fight.
But Second Amendment rights advocates are about to find out.
“I suppose, in part,” said state Rep. Harold Dutton, describing his plan to legalize carrying switchblades, “it’s political.”
Across the country, this has become the year of the knife. New federal rules will allow pocketknives on airplanes. And state legislatures from Tennessee to Kansas to Indiana to Alaska are considering measures to legalize the switchblade, the favored weapon of fictional midcentury street gangs.
Here in Texas, where weapons laws tend toward the permissive, switchblade legislation has advanced to the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence.
All of which might seem fairly unremarkable, except that the bill’s author, a Democrat from Houston, has a National Rifle Association rating of F, a personal firearms history that qualifies as colorful even by local standards and something downright subversive in mind.
To make sense of it all, you have to know about Dutton. But first you have to know about Knife Rights Inc.
For the last seven years, a wilderness survival expert by the name of Doug Ritter has been building national support for laws allowing more knives in more places.
Starting in his home state, Arizona, Ritter set out to turn varying local ordinances into statewide policy. Gun rights advocates embraced his cause. Ted Nugent’s endorsement decorated his Web site.
Before long, Ritter turned his attention to legalizing instruments with such comically antiquated names as the dirk, the stiletto and the dagger. To paraphrase his line of argument, those weapons usually pose a mortal hazard only if you are a character in a game of Clue.
When he started campaigning to legalize the switchblade, though, Ritter touched a nerve. Laws against the distinctive push-button mechanism date to the violent gang wars between the Sharks and the Jets (on Broadway in “West Side Story”). By the time James Dean’s character rumbled in “Rebel Without a Cause,” the knives had become a potent symbol, as one movie poster put it, of “Today’s Juvenile Violence!”
Still, his message found a receptive audience. Counting victories in New Hampshire in Missouri, he said, switchblades are now legal in 30 states, including 24 with no limitations on length.
Knife rights advocates are optimistic about the Texas bill.
“It’s always been extremely odd to me that I can walk around in public, I can even go into the Capitol with a loaded firearm, yet I can’t carry certain described kinds of knives,” said Peter Wang, 51, an oilfield services company employee in Houston who owns both guns and knives.
From his national vantage, Ritter interpreted Dutton’s sponsorship as a sign of bipartisan support.
Dutton, a Democrat from Houston, serves as chairman of the Committee on Urban Affairs.
In 1989, he reported receiving death threats as the author of a proposal to ban assault rifles. A crowd estimated at nearly 1,000 marched on the Capitol. The measure failed.
Four years later, he was convicted of reckless conduct after his estranged wife claimed he had pointed a pistol at her.
Over the years, Dutton has displayed a creative streak in his approach to gun control. In 1995, for example, he introduced a bill that would have made voter registration cards double as gun permits. Under that proposal, failing to cast a ballot would cost people the right to carry a weapon.
Contacted to discuss his new proposal, Dutton opened the interview with an account of his long-ago effort to ban assault rifles.
“Now that the assault rifle controversy has re-energized,” he said, “we looked at the prohibited weapons list.”
“What should be on that list is things that are causing damage today,” he went on. “That weapon is not switchblade knives.”
His staff prepared an analysis of the proposal, subtly noting that “while the switchblade knife is listed on Texas’ prohibited weapons list, assault rifles are not on the list.”
In the interview, though, Dutton left little doubt about his intentions.
“Hopefully we’ll get to have a lively discussion on the House floor, and we’ll see who’s for it and who’s against it,” he said. “I can’t see why anyone would be against it.”