Pennsylvania Court: Automatic Knives not Protected by Second Amendment

A Pennsylvania Court has found that automatic knives are not protected arms under the Second Amendment. The case is not precedential, and is unlikely to be appealed. The finding was made on 9 March, 2017.
On July 29th, 2014, William Battle entered the Pike County Administrative Building for an appointment with a probation officer.  Battle had plead guilty to aggravated assault involving a firearm in 2009, when he was 18, for a crime committed eight months earlier, when he was 17.  He was convicted as an adult. Aggravated assault is a felony in Pennsylvania.  Under Pennsylvania law Battle may not legally possess firearms.

Battle emptied his pockets as preparation to passing through a metal detector. An automatic knife with a four inch blade was part of the contents. A deputy saw the knife and examined it. Battle was arrested for illegal possession of an offensive  weapon. The jury trial took place in 2016, and Battle was found guilty of possession of a prohibited offensive weapon. Battle was 25 years old.

An appeal was filed shortly after the conviction, based solely on the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.  The appeal did not reference Pennsylvania’s state Constitution. Pennsylvania has a strong right to bear arms provision in the State’s Constitution.  From

Pennsylvania: The right of the citizens to bear arms in defence of themselves and the State shall not be questioned. Art. 1, § 21 (enacted 1790, art. IX, § 21).

The superior court that heard William Battle’s appeal found that switchblade knives are not protected by the Second Amendment, because they “serve no common lawful purpose”. Judge Lillian Harris Ransom wrote the memorandum.  From the memorandum:

Appellant was free to possess an instrument with a common lawful purpose and use that instrument for the lawful purpose of self-defense. Instead, Appellant possessed a switchblade. While it is conceivable that Appellant possessed a switchblade for self-defense, that is not the switchblade’s common purpose. Hitchon, 549 A.2d at 946; Ashford, 397 A.2d at 423. Accordingly, we reject Appellant’s constitutional claim; he is entitled to no relief. Judgment of sentence affirmed.

The decision makes no sense. Automatic knives are routinely carried and used for numerous common purposes, just as non-automatic knives are.   Knives are common arms.  Automatic knives are legal in most states. There are numerous legal reasons to own them, including self defense. The idea that they are “offensive” arms is an old myth created by a New York Congressman. Part of that mythology is the old play, West Side Story.

This memorandum is a non-precedential finding.  Knife law reform is being pursued in Pennsylvania, so this case might be used as a reason to pass the reform.  If Battle had an ordinary fixed blade knife in his pocket, there would not have broken any law.  He could have legally carried a sword, or a machete.

The appeal did not cite the Supreme Court ruling in Caetano, that said that all bearable arms fall under the Second Amendment. Caetano PER CURIAM decision (pdf):

The Court has held that “the Second Amendment extends, prima facie, to all instruments that constitute bearable arms, even those that were not in existence at the time of the founding,” District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U. S. 570, 582 (2008), and that this “Second Amendment right is fully applicable to the States,” McDonald v.Chicago, 561 U. S. 742, 750 (2010).

The Caetano decision dealt with electronic stun guns, and held that they were in common use. There are likely more automatic knives in use than the 200,000 electronic stun guns cited in Caetano.

By Dean Weingarten

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