This article appeared in Knife Magazine in November 2021.
Know Your Knife Laws – Statistics and Steak Knives
By Daniel C. Lawson, Attorney and Knife Expert
We are frequently made aware of crime statistics. In many instances, the entity bringing the data to our attention has a discernible agenda. The amount of detail available is often impressive. This may account for the common misunderstanding of statistical data – or the lack thereof – regarding knife crime.
The stampede to prohibit automatic knives in the 1950s was thought necessary due to a surge in crime during that era. The proponents of the Federal Switchblade Act (FSA) promised that they had an empirical study from law enforcement agencies across the country, which would reveal widespread criminal use of said knives. It never appeared. If it existed – which is unlikely – it remained well disguised.
Data on crime in the United States are collected by the federal government and made available. The website for the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program administered by the Justice Department states:
The program’s primary objective is to generate a reliable set of criminal statistics for use in law enforcement administration, operation, and management; however, over the years, its data have become one of the country’s leading social indicators.
The program may generate a reliable set of statistics regarding the number of victims cut, stabbed, or so threatened. It does not provide any data regarding the type of cutting or stabbing weapon involved. The crime weapon data category for crimes involving “knives” is labeled “knives and other cutting instruments” and includes:
Weapons which are used as cutting or stabbing objects, e.g., knives, razors, hatchets, axes, cleavers, scissors, glass, broken bottles, ice picks, and other such instruments. A ring, key, ball-point pen, etc., should be classified as an “other cutting instrument” only if it was used as a cutting or stabbing object.
Some American states independently collect crime weapon data using essentially the same category description.
Information regarding the specific weapon or type used in a crime is sometimes contained in case reports. One may conduct computer-assisted research using a service such as Westlaw™ and a search term like “bowie knife.”
Suppose one executes such a search in Virginia, where bowie knives are restricted. In that case, the search will disclose a list of some 45 appellate-level cases where that exact term occurs. The case summaries will reveal a few cases where the issue presented involved the use of a bowie.
Witherow v. Commonwealth 779 S.E.2d 223 (2015), the most recent “use” case involved a domestic situation where the wife (victim) armed with a bowie knife was shot and wounded by the husband, who was armed with a .357 revolver. No injuries were inflicted by the knife. There is a 1994 murder case Morris v. Commonwealth 439 S.E.2d 867, involving a “bowie knife,” a 1948 robbery, and an 1842 altercation involving a bowie knife. Most of the “bowie” cases arise from possession rather than use.
The case of Ricks v. Commonwealth 499 S.E.2d 575 (1998) is typical. One Jimmy Ricks was observed driving erratically. When stopped by police, a “steak knife” was found in his vehicle. He was charged with concealed possession of a dirk, dagger, or “weapon of like kind.” His conviction was reversed because his steak knife did not have the physical characteristics of the weapons specified and, therefore, could lawfully be concealed.
If one executes a search using the word “steak” in place of “bowie” knife,” some 25 cases where the term ‘steak knife’ appears are revealed. Almost 80% of those cases involve the criminal use of a steak knife. Forty percent of the cases involve murder or homicide. Johnson v. Commonwealth 529 S.E.2d 769 (2000) is representative:
The nude body of 22–year–old Hope Denise Hall was found on the bedroom floor of her apartment in Petersburg. She had been stabbed 15 times, including fatal stab wounds to her back, chest, and neck. . .The police found blood on two ‘steak knives, which were lying on a counter in Hall’s kitchen.
Ms. Hall was only one of three of Johnson’s victims, along with 21-year-old Lavonda Scott and 15-year-old Janel Chambliss:
Johnson assaulted both Scott and Chambliss after requesting a glass of water. He then seized knives from their kitchen. . .The crimes committed against Scott, Chambliss, and Hall occurred within a 60-day period. . . In each case, the attacker used a steak knife that he obtained in the victim’s dwelling. Each victim was raped, and the attacker stabbed the victims who resisted him.
The Virginia case of Rogers v. Commonwealth 410 S.E.2d 621 (1991) involved a 74-year-old widow fatally attacked in her home:
The women found the victim lying face down in the dining room . . . and there was a “knife sticking out of her back.” The knife was one of a set of steak knives with white plastic handles from the victim’s kitchen drawer
A Virginia Court of Appeals case, Monsour Salahmand v. Commonwealth 2009 WL 2143800, arose from a domestic disturbance where the wife Azar Baradar, had been stabbed by her husband, Salahmand. She declined to testify, and Salahmand claimed she stabbed herself:
After Salahmand was separated from Azar Baradar, she told the deputy that Salahmand had stabbed her and that the knives he used were in the kitchen drawer. Deputy Daniel found the knives with her blood on them in the kitchen drawer. . . From this evidence, the trial court concluded that Salahmand was guilty of malicious wounding because he had stabbed Azar Baradar several times with steak knives in parts of her body that are not consistent with self-inflicted wounds.
Virginia law provides that certain knives, including bowie knives, dirks, and “switchblade knives,” may not be carried concealed beyond one’s home. Two “bowie knife” cases, Witherow and Morris, were mentioned above. Both involved bowie knives in the home. Recall that Witherow shot his wife using a revolver. In Morris v Commonwealth, victim Houck and perpetrator Morris returned to the victim’s home after a long evening of drinking and an impromptu party:
Around 3:00 a.m., the two left the party together. Morris drove Houck’s 1983 Ford Escort to Houck’s house. The two men watched television in the living room. Later Houck went to his bedroom to lie down. Morris took a bowie knife belonging to Houck’s father and used the knife to cut Houck’s throat.
Steak knife misuse is not confined to Virginia. A search using that term will lead to cases very similar to those discussed above across the country. Michigan law provides for significant restrictions on “double-edged stabbing instruments.” The case of People v Coy 620 N.W.2d 888 (2000) concerned a murder where the victim was found on the floor of her bedroom:
An autopsy revealed that the victim had suffered twenty-five to thirty stab wounds, including slashes to her head, face, neck, torso, hands, and arms, and four deep and parallel blade penetrations through her back and lung. In the victim’s bedroom, police found some blood on the bedroom door and doorknob, the victim’s bloodstained bedding, a bloody pen on the floor near the victim, and a broken, bloody steak knife blade.
Accordingly, an effective “stabbing instrument” can be a pen with no edges or a simple single-edged knife with no crossguard hilt.
The Alabama case of Stanley v State 143 So.3d 230 (2011) involved a victim (Smith) invited to the home of the perpetrator (Stanley) and then murdered:
Stanley knocked Smith to the floor, took a steak knife from the top of a china cabinet, straddled Smith with his knees on the floor, and repeatedly stabbed him in the back while Smith begged for his life. When the steak knife bent, Stanley got another steak knife and continued to stab Smith.
The evidence at trial revealed that Smith suffered 36 stab wounds.
We do not claim that this article is a scientific or empirical study. We do not intend to imply that legal restrictions regarding “steak knives” are indicated. We do not suggest that the UCR Program is flawed or unreliable. A recent UCR compilation of violent crimes by location – not by weapon – shows that for a total of 675,715 violent crimes, 51% (346,399) occurred in a residence. This is consistent with all the cases discussed herein, with the sole exception of the erratic driver Jimmy Ricks.
We do suggest that a substantial percentage of knife or cutting-instrument crime is simply beyond the reach of possession and carry restrictions. While knives with weapon characteristics are often restricted, ubiquitous, inexpensive, and essentially disposable, “kitchen” or “steak knives” are effective substitutes for the criminally inclined.
We appreciate that the readers of Knife Magazine do not seek to read of grisly crimes committed with inexpensive kitchen drawer knives. However, there may be some benefit to additional perspective about UCR data and what is claimed to be “one of the country’s leading social indicators.”
The mission of The American Knife & Tool Institute (AKTI) is to educate and inform. There are no bad knives or good knives. Knives have been a simple, handy, and common tool for thousands of years. We encourage all to know our knife laws and support us in making reasonable, responsible revisions to them. Check out the knife laws in your state and where you work, and learn more about the American Knife & Tool Institute.