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Buck Knives nervous about Customs language

There’s a switchblade fight going on in Congress. Depending on who wins, North Idaho could bleed jobs.

This is not some latter-day version of the Sharks and the Jets, minus the choreography. It’s even nastier, because it takes place in an even more dangerous neighborhood: federal regulations.

The U.S. Customs Bureau recently proposed rewriting the rules governing imported knives to broaden the definition of switchblades. It would expand the ban from the classic switchblade – think James Coburn in “The Magnificent Seven” – to any knife that can be opened by one hand with “inertia, gravity or both.”

In other words, a knife that can go from fully or partly closed to open with the flick of a wrist. They’d be illegal, just like the classic, spring-loaded switchblade that opens with the press of a button.

That definition, in the words of C.J. Buck, covers a lot of knives. And as president and chief executive officer of Buck Knives, he’d know.

Right now, the Customs language only covers imported knives. That might seem to be a good thing for Buck Knives, which makes knives in Post Falls. But Buck is afraid there’s a very small step to adopting the language for interstate commerce rules, and banning all similar domestic knives, too.

That could effectively ban 60 percent or more of the company’s product, which supports about 220 factory jobs just east of the Idaho border. And factories don’t shrink 60 percent, he said: “They die.”

Buck said he and other knife manufacturers were surprised by the proposal in May. They called their lobbyist and their representatives in Congress. In Buck’s case, that was freshman Democrat Walt Minnick.

In the meantime, the Internet lit up with dire warnings that President Obama was out to take your pocketknife as well as your guns. There is no knife equivalent to the National Rifle Association, but many hunting and sportsmen’s associations kicked into gear, and the NRA joined the fray.

Minnick, who toured the Post Falls factory last week, told Buck he thought he had the rule squelched last month with a standard legislative maneuver. He and a Republican colleague persuaded members of the House Appropriations Committee to accept an amendment to the bill that has the money for the bureau’s budget. The amendment cut out the money Customs officials would need to enforce the rule.

It’s a standard congressional tactic for a rule they don’t like: no money, no enforcement.

This time, however, committee chairman Dave Obey said no dice. They weren’t going to be making policy through appropriations. (This is a bit like that scene in “Casablanca” where Claude Raines tells Humphrey Bogart he’s shocked that gambling was going on at Rick’s.)

Now Minnick is taking a different tack, of calling Customs officials and discussing what the bureau is trying to accomplish. The rule isn’t final yet, so there’s still time to make changes, he said.

And if that doesn’t work? Other bills are moving through the House, and “we will attach (the amendment) to something else,” Minnick said.

So, while a slogan like “When pocketknives are outlawed, only outlaws will have pocketknives” might make a good bumper sticker, it may be a bit early to order 1,000 of them.

Spin Control, a weekly political column, is also a blog with daily posts, videos and reader comments at spokesman.com/blogs/spincontrol.


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