A Gotcha Question for George W. Bush

Gotcha questions get a bad rap. True, some of them are merely obnoxious (“But Mr. Candidate, didn’t you say yesterday that it wasn’t going to rain in Kalamazoo?”), but the best ones can trap candidates into acknowledging the weaknesses of their own belief systems–an exercise that surely benefits the body politic. In that spirit, Chatterbox offers up an excellent gotcha question for someone to ask George W. Bush: Should switchblades be illegal?

Right now, it’s illegal to carry a switchblade in 37 states. Interstate sales of switchblades are banned by the federal government, and you can’t bring a switchblade into the United States from another country. (“Are you carrying a switchblade?” has always struck Chatterbox as the most disorienting question posed by U.S. Customs officers.) Nonetheless, the Internet has created a boom in switchblade sales to the United States, according to an article by Robert Johnson in the March 7 Wall Street Journal. Thanks to its Web site, an Italian switchblade manufacturer called SKM has apparently doubled its sales to the United States every year since 1996. (It even carries a line called “cheap switchblades“!)

Naturally, the inflow of switchblades from overseas annoys the U.S. knife industry to no end. The Journal piece says that Leslie DeAsis, president of Benchmade Knife Co. (which makes switchblades but says it sells them only to cops) is thinking of starting a lobbying effort in some states to repeal switchblade bans. (He is president of an industry-wide trade group.) “You can’t have an accidental discharge with a knife, and kill someone in the next room,” DeAsis told the Journal.

This rationale is slightly less ridiculous than it sounds. DeAsis is right that switchblades are less dangerous than guns; the technological challenge posed by killing someone with a knife probably helps explain why the juvenile delinquents of the West Side Storyish 1950s killed fewer people than the generation that succeeded them. Today, the juvenile homicide rate is dropping nationally: According to a new Justice department study called “Kids and Guns,” this is because of a drop in gun-related juvenile homicides since 1993. Non-gun-related juvenile homicides have mostly held steady during this same period. Can we attribute the productivity drop by teen-age killers to a new preference for low-tech switchblades? That’s probably a stretch. Between 1996 and 1997, the Justice department data show about the same rate of decline for gun-related juvenile homicides and non-gun-related juvenile homicides. If juvenile killers are trading guns for switchblades, though, that presents a social problem–not so great a problem as a handgun boom would be, but troublesome nonetheless. According to the Journal, use of knives in killings has already risen from 12.7 percent in 1994 to 13.3 percent in 1998.

So we’re agreed: Switchblade use should not be encouraged.

But imagine the pickle it would put George W. Bush in if he were asked whether he favored repealing the laws that restrict use of switchblades. If he answered “Yes” (admittedly that’s hard to imagine), he would be advocating the reintroduction of a dangerous weapon to America’s youth gangs. (For the right, switchblades don’t really inspire the same sentimentality that guns do; colonial militiamen didn’t carry them.) If Bush answered “No,” however, inevitably he would invite the follow-up question, “Then why don’t you favor more drastic restrictions on handguns, which kill a lot more people than switchblades ever will?” (As Bush’s Web page on gun laws shows, his idea of gun control is to support “voluntary efforts to equip all handguns with child safety locks.”)

Bush could say what he says about the Confederate flag–“leave it to the states”–but that would raise the question of whether the federal ban on interstate switchblade sales, and on switchblade imports, should be maintained.

Over to you, Sam Donaldson.