Reply to: Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, July 25, 2006 … “How New, Deadly Pocketknives Became a $1 Billion Business”
“C’mon, everyone knows what a tactical knife is,” an exasperated Mark Fritz told me. “Are they folding knives or straight knives? What kind of handles do they have? What kind of blades?” I asked. He couldn’t answer that. But he was clearly frustrated with the progress of our interview for a story that was to appear in the Wall Street Journal. I pointed out that U.S. laws had been using such terms as Bowie knife, dirk, dagger, and stiletto for decades, without providing any definitions.
The AKTI Approved Knife Definitions, adopted by the American Knife & Tool Institute on August 31, 2005, finally addressed this gap in our legal system and crafted definitions for these knife categories named in statutes for more than 50 years. Some 16 months earlier, AKTI approved its Protocol For Measuring Knife Blade Length a necessary and long-awaited step. There was no state with such a protocol even though more than 30 of them prohibit knives based on various blade lengths.
Mr. Fritz contacted me with an initial April 2006 phone message that was a clear misrepresentation; he claimed he was writing a story on collaborations between custom knifemakers and companies that licensed their designs for commercial sale. When we finally connected, he confessed he was actually doing a story on the growth of the “tactical knife” segment of the industry.
I repeatedly cautioned him there are no accurate figures on total U.S. sales of sporting and pocket knives because all knife companies are privately held. Therefore, even if we knew what tactical knives were, we could not provide either total sales or any measure of sales growth. That didn’t stop Mr. Fritz. He took another three months to create a story sensational enough to sell to the Wall Street Journal.
The Fritz article, “How New, Deadly Pocketknives Became a $1 Billion Business,” appeared in the WSJ on July 25. Mr. Fritz wove together selective quotations taken out of context, innuendo that is portrayed as fact, and a few undocumented numbers meant to convince readers he had done his research.
There have been cases in the last several years where unscrupulous reporters tried to build careers on fabricated information. Dan Rather has been the most prominent recent example. Several others have chosen the same route, ending their careers when they were unmasked, but also embarrassing old and established institutions that chose to publish copy-selling sensationalism rather than documented fact.
Let’s look at the details Mr. Fritz provides. He cites FBI statistics and admits “there are no statistics on how many crimes have involved tactical-style knives.” That’s because the FBI does not define tactical knives nor do the state reporting agencies that submit data. Historically, the FBI has speculated that kitchen knives are involved in perhaps 95 percent of knife cases because of domestic violence and because they are a “weapon of opportunity” during home invasions.
Mr. Fritz then tries to draw switchblade knives into his story. They are legal to manufacture and possess in several states. For example, California allows them if the blade is less than two inches in length. Other states exempt them from their ban when sold to law enforcement or military personnel or to persons with only one arm.
Switchblades are clearly defined in federal law and most states have adopted the federal language. Attorneys such as Mr. Daniel Lawson, quoted in the article, are correct to insist on clarity in knife statutes. Mr. Lawson drafted the AKTI Approved Knife Definitions and he states in the introduction, “Vague laws fail to provide persons targeted by the law or statute with guidance so that they may know exactly what conduct is prohibited and so that they may adjust, or act, accordingly.”
The fact is that knife technology, metallurgy and design have come a long way since most knife laws were written decades ago. Experts within any tool industry are challenged to keep up with emerging technology. Lawmakers, who are typically not engineers, can only draft workable legislation if they get clear explanations of what is current and appreciate how fast any technology can become obsolete. Console TVs, dial telephones and 8-track tape players have all been replaced with several generations of new technology we could not have imagined even 30 years ago.
Mr. Fritz mentions one lawmaker by name. But here again he’s got his facts twisted. AKTI has never credited U.S. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon with any involvement in either the formation of AKTI or intervention with U.S. Customs on behalf of any knife company. Senator Wyden has been a strong advocate of tech school training in Oregon and the Portland area, in particular. Manufacturers in multiple industries and several U.S. knife companies are headquartered in Portland and have benefited from Senator Wyden’s commitment to an educated workforce.
Mr. Fritz refers to a 2001 U.S. Customs case. The case actually occurred in 2000 (as reported in Volume 2, Issue 1 of the AKTI News & Update). Columbia River Knife & Tool (CRKT) Company of Oregon, after years of successfully importing more than 50 different models of sporting knives, had one shipment seized based on the arbitrary judgment on one day of one U.S. Customs agent. When presented with the facts, Oregon U.S. Congresswoman Darlene Hooley and U.S. Senator Gordon Smith co-signed a letter on October 17, 2000, that petitioned the head of U.S. Customs to examine the arbitrary field decision and grant relief to CRKT. He reviewed the facts and issued his ruling on October 20, 2000, putting CRKT back in business after an estimated loss of more than $1 million.
Mr. Fritz implies that AKTI was formed in 2001 as a result of that case. It was actually incorporated in January 1998 because our 100-year-old industry, employing tens of thousands of craftsmen in plants across the country, had never had an organization that represented them. Newspaper employees, by contrast, had already had a union representing them for decades.
Mr. Fritz’s reference to the Flight 93 crash on 9/11 is another clever sleight-of-hand that crumbles when examined closely. He tells us 14 badly damaged knife parts were recovered from the Pennsylvania crash site. But we have no idea who owned those knives. And the parts could easily have been from a set of serrated steak knives in the checked baggage compartment. If you saw the recent movie, United 93, supposedly based on exhaustive interviews of those people who were phoned by passengers, you saw one knife held by one hijacker with a supposed bomb strapped to his chest. We don’t even know if the bomb was real. Mr. Fritz added the qualifier that, “…the FBI cautions that it can’t be sure those parts are from knives that belonged to the hijackers.” But other news reporters have already ignored that weak caution hidden at the end of a paragraph.
Prior to 9/11, passengers by the millions regularly carried their pocketknives onto airplanes. After 9/11, even though knives were banned in carry-on baggage, the U.S. Marshall’s Service and TSA are still collecting untold pounds of them every day. Ordinary, law-abiding citizens are so used to carrying them they forget about the airline ban.
The fact is, law-abiding Americans, your neighbors and Mr. Fritz’s neighbors, carry and use knives every day for everything from pruning the roses to hiking, camping and fishing to EMT rescue. Mr. Fritz wants readers to ignore those millions of U.S. citizens. His tactic is to imply that only criminals have knives and inflame his argument with such words as “deadly” and “menacing.” But the 12-inch knitting needles we can carry on planes can be deadly. And the unstable person swinging a baseball bat can be menacing. AKTI has always advocated that criminals who use any weapon in the commission of a crime be punished severely. Law-abiding citizens who carry knives for legitimate purposes should not.
Finally, we do concede that Mr. Fritz is correct when he says that, “Not all makers of … knives agree on how to market them.” The American Knife & Tool Institute has issued advisories on such subjects as knife naming, for example. One of our four stated goals is to “Promote the public awareness of the history and utility of knives as tools.” Another is to “Educate young people about proper knife safety and the responsible use of knives.”
As for knife demand, many companies cited in the article are suppliers to some branch of the U.S. military. Their recent growth has come from that significant demand. And countless other companies have donated knives and other equipment to our troops overseas.
By David D. Kowalski, Communications Coordinator for AKTI