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Massachusetts' highest court to hear challenge to state law on switchblades

In a photo provided by the New York Police Department, a switchblade knife rests on a paper towel in New York, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. Police say a high school student suddenly attacked two classmates with the knife during class at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation.
New York Police
In a photo provided by the New York Police Department, a switchblade knife rests on a paper towel in New York, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. Police say a high school student suddenly attacked two classmates with the knife during class at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will consider a constitutional challenge on Monday to the state's switchblade carry ban.

The challenge follows the 2022 Bruen decision by the U.S. Supreme Court striking down down New York's public-carry gun law.

Reporter Jennifer Smith wrote about the switchblade case for the Commonwealth Beacon. Smith said the Massachusetts switchblade carry ban dates back more than 60 years.
Jennifer Smith, Commonwealth Beacon: That's right. So, the state initially banned switchblade carrying in 1957, along with a host of other weapons that don't fall under the category of firearms, but do fall under the category of dangerous weapons, where just carrying them and being found to carry them is, in and of itself, not allowed.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: So, could you set up how this matter then gets before the Supreme Judicial Court?

This stems from a situation in 2020 where there was a dispute that police responded to in Boston, where a man and his girlfriend were having an altercation. Apparently, when police arrived, the man in question told them that he hadn't seen his girlfriend over the course of the day, and then suddenly saw her going into a bar with another man. In the process of arguing, he apparently pushed her against a wall and took her phone, and when the police arrived, she said, you know, this is a mess [and] I'd like to just go home.

Police retrieved her phone and placed the man under arrest for assault and battery, and in the process, they conducted a search and found a switchblade at his waist that had not been used, drawn or brandished in any way during the altercation. But just carrying it itself was enough to violate the state's ban on carrying switchblades.

So, when he was actually brought in on charges for that, he was found to be in violation of the state's ban at the lower court level. But his attorney then petitioned the Supreme Judicial Court, the state's highest court, to hear the case, to basically consider whether, in the context of recent Supreme Court decisions, carrying a switchblade being totally banned in Massachusetts, violates the new understanding and the expanded understanding of the Second Amendment.

And the expanded understanding that sort of came while this case was happening in Boston under the Bruen decision. There are some standards in Bruen that the Supreme Judicial Court will need to consider in this. How long do you think this process will take them to consider how Massachusetts will treat switchblades going forward?

Well, it's an interesting case because it's basically an issue of first impression for the highest court here. They've considered, for instance, and did actually end up deciding that stun guns being banned was allowed back a few years ago, only for the U.S. Supreme Court to conclude that Massachusetts' similar ban on that violated their understanding of the Second Amendment.

So, the court usually ends up hearing oral arguments and then coming to some sort of conclusion within around three months. Sometimes it's a little earlier, sometimes it's a little bit later. But they'll certainly have to give this some serious thought, because it flies in the face of some of their own past decisions that ended up conflicting with the federal courts.

Not exactly the first issue you think of when you think of a Second Amendment challenge — a switchblade.

That's right. And I think this is why the issue is so interesting for people, because the category is essentially a deadly weapon that could be used for self-defense. And so, they have to consider a few different questions.

One of which is, was this the type of weapon that would have been carried around for self-defense at the time that the Second Amendment came into effect? So, that remains an open question. Switchblades are a specific type of spring-activated knife, so it's not exactly the same sort of thing that would have been used during revolutionary times. But of course people did have knives. And so, the question becomes, did this exist at the time? Was it regulated at the time? And also, is this the type of weapon that the average person would consider carrying around for self-defense?

So, the fact that it doesn't involve guns, the proponents argue, isn't actually the issue. But the state itself says, no, the fact that it's a knife literally means that Second Amendment jurisprudence shouldn't apply here. All of these rulings have basically involved guns. And this here is a different type of weapon.

And you're going to be able to continue reporting on this as the case unfolds?

Yes, I'm very much looking forward to it. On Monday, we will see oral arguments in front of the high court. And that usually gives you a bit of a sense of the way that the court is leaning. And I, in particular, I'm interested in seeing if they basically reassess any of their earlier positions on banning certain types of deadly weaponry, as they have in the past, perhaps in fear of being overturned by a higher court.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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