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The Right to Bear Blades

How we regulate America's other favorite weapon

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

On a Tuesday morning a few weeks ago, a 20-year-old student named Dylan Quick showed up at his community college in Texas with an X-acto knife and went on a stabbing spree. By the time it was over—after the tip of Quick's blade broke off inside one of his victims—he had slashed 14 people .

In the next few days, the knife attacks at Lone Star College became a talking point on both sides of the debate over gun control. Libertarians used the carnage as evidence that a dedicated killer would go about his business with whatever instruments are at hand: Take away his guns, and he'll arm himself with cutlery. Those on other side used the same police reports to make the opposite point: Despite Quick's evil intentions, he hadn't actually killed anyone. Guns make murder more efficient, they argued.

In the U.S., firearms account for about two-thirds of all homicides; from a public-health perspective, they're more dangerous than any other kind of weapon. But there's something odd about the way that Dylan Quick’s knife assaults have been made into a footnote to gun violence. Stabbings may be less deadly than shootings overall, but they're hardly insignificant. In 2011, almost 1,700 people were murdered with knives, compared to just 700 with rifles, shotguns and explosives put together. (The vast majority of homicides are committed with a handgun.) Yet despite the substantial toll they take in human life, bladed weapons have been relegated to the margins of U.S. politics.

Sharp implements are now considered so benign that the Transportation Security Administration recently said that it would allow passengers to carry pocketknives onto airplanes for the first time since the security crackdown after 9/11. Knife manufacturers Victorinox Swiss Army and Leatherman were behind the proposed policy shift, and the pilots’ and flight attendants’ unions have been against it. But the prospect of knives on airplanes hasn’t provoked much outrage from the general public, even though the 9/11 attacks were carried out with blades. (The TSA had been planning to lift the knife ban on April 25th, but on April 23rd the agency announced that it would keep the ban in place while it solicited “further input.”)

How dangerous are knives, really? It depends on where you are. Mass stabbings are unusual in the U.S., but less so in other countries. On Dec. 14, the same day as the Newtown massacre, 22 elementary-school children in China were wounded by a deranged knifeman. Earlier school stabbing attacks in China have been more deadly. The March 2010 spree in Fujian Province, which kicked off a two-year spate of copycat crimes, resulted in 8 knife-related deaths. Japan has had similar tragedies. In the summer of 2001, a 37-year-old man stabbed 8 people to death and injured 15 at an elementary school in Osaka, and 7 more perished in a 2008 knife attack in the crowded Akihabara shopping district of Tokyo.

Despite the rarity of these group attacks in the U.S., more than 1,500 Americans are murdered with knives every year. In recent decades, these killings have made up about one in seven homicides, but this blanket number obscures an odd fact: Knives are grossly overrepresented in crimes by and against women. According to FBI crime data collected between 2000 and 2010, female victims are 55 percent more likely than their male counterparts to have been attacked with a knife, and female killers are 64 percent more likely than their male counterparts to have used a knife to commit murder.

The link between women and knife violence can be attributed to the fact that women are more often involved in domestic crime, where stabbings turn up with greater frequency. In America, you don't usually slash a stranger. (Dylan Quick did, but he’s an exception.) The victims of knife murders include twice as many intimate acquaintances—wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, etc.—as other people. For gun violence, that ratio goes in the opposite direction: Strangers outnumber intimates by 50 percent.

When it comes to domestic violence, firearms still cause more deaths than knives. But the gender imbalance in the choice of weapon suggests one reason people look away from everyday knife violence. Stabbings demand a closeness that shootings lack, and more than that, they allow a closeness that shootings lack. To slash someone to death, a killer must have his victim in something like an embrace, and expose himself to the splash and splatter of the act. Compared to shooting, stabbing is a crime of passion, with stronger sexual overtones.

That may also be why many of the most famous murders in America have featured knives. OJ Simpson was alleged to have carved up his ex-wife (and now he's reportedly trying to sell that knife for $5 million). Jeffrey MacDonald remains in prison for stabbing his wife and daughters to death with a knife and an ice pick. Amanda Knox was accused of using a knife to murder her female roommate in Italy. Handguns take the greatest toll from one day to the next, but knife crimes yield higher drama.

Knife violence holds a special place in movies, too. The horror genre in particular has evinced a peculiar lack of interest in handguns and made the knife into the prime instrument of terror. From the time that Janet Leigh was stabbed to death on screen in 1960, the scariest Hollywood killer has always been the one brandishing a butcher knife. Yet despite its status as a cultural icon, despite its role in violence against (and by) women, the knife hasn’t been seen as a social problem for more than fifty years. After the stabbings at Lone Star College failed to occasion much outcry, the criminologist James Alan Fox explained to USA Today that "knives just don't create that same sense of fear" as guns.

What knife regulation does exist in the U.S. dates back to a time when knife violence was associated not with jealous spouses but unruly teenagers. Movies such as Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause (both released in 1955) stoked fears of stiletto-wielding toughs roaming the streets, jabbing at strangers just for kicks. When knives were viewed as a public rather than private menace, the public felt that they should be subject to government controls. Congress passed the Switchblade Act in 1958. The law banned the interstate commerce in knives that open automatically, with the press of a button or the flip of a latch, and later amendments halted sales of "ballistic knives," where the blade can be fired off from the hilt like a projectile.

In recent years, though, lobbying from the industry-based American Knife and Tool Institute, along with pressure from a more grassroots organization called Knife Rights—one of its mottos is "The Second Front in Defense of the Second Amendment"—has led to minor rollbacks of knife restrictions at both the federal and state levels. In 2009, the Obama Administration tried to extend the prohibitions of the Switchblade Act to include any knife that could be flipped open one-handed. Later that year, an amendment to the Switchblade Act, drafted by the knife-rights activists, made these knives exempt from regulation as long as they contain "a spring, detent, or other mechanism designed to create a bias toward closure"—in other words, as long as you have to expend some effort to expose the blade.

Knife-control measures have a way of foundering on such details. What differentiates a dangerous knife from a simple kitchen implement? Federal law has long focused on the question of how a knife is unsheathed, but some states have seen the length or width of a blade as a proxy for its risk to the public. (If the TSA does suspend the rule against knives, airline passengers would still only be allowed to carry pocketknives that are less than 2.4 inches long and half an inch wide.) Other regulations consider how the knife is shaped, with two-edged, pointy designs deemed more dangerous than other kinds.

This morass of metrics hints at how hard it would be to scale back knife violence, if Americans ever grew keen to do so. The effort to enact gun control may have pushed legislators to heights of disingenuousness, but the problem with guns is straightforward: Every firearm, from a Saturday night special to an assault rifle, is designed to kill or maim. When it comes to the most ancient tool in human history, however, there is no easy way to dice the continuum of danger that runs from butter knife to Bowie knife. Other countries have tried to quit their guns cold turkey, the way a person might attempt to give up cigarettes. But we’ll never give up our knives, at least not all of them.

Daniel Engber (@danengber) is a columnist for Slate. Send him an email at