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The Little-known Risks of Carrying a Swiss Army Knife

In Japan, a man was convicted of carrying a Swiss Army knife. It can happen in other countries, too. SWI swissinfo.ch takes a look at an underestimated risk.

“A real man carries a pocket knife in his trousers” was a common saying in Switzerland for a long time. It has since, with good reason, fallen victim to the equality debate. But the habit of carrying a pocket knife endures, and for women too.

In Switzerland, even children often have a Sackmesser, as they are called in the German-speaking part of the country. Not the official army knife with bottle opener and corkscrew, but smaller, colourful versions with short blades and scissors. There are suitable models for every age (and every hobby). Not much can go wrong, apart from a small cut to the finger.

That’s not the case in Japan. In August, a man was sentenced because of a Swiss Army knife. He had received the knife as a gift from an acquaintance in the 1990s and used it professionally for a long time. He later continued to carry it, a habit that was to put him at odds with the law.

During the trial in Osaka, he testified that he had the pocket knife on him in case of a natural disaster. But the court did not accept this explanation. It maintained that carrying a pocket knife for that reason would only be justifiable if a disaster had already occurred. Otherwise, it amounted to carrying a dangerous object, the court said. It ruled against the man and fined him 9,900 yen (CHF60).

‘Will the famous knife be banned?’

Such a judgment would be unthinkable in Switzerland. Here, too, it is a criminal offence to carry a dangerous object. For example, anyone who takes a baseball bat to training is not breaking the law, but if that person takes the bat into a bar, he or she risks being reported to the police. Pocket knives are explicitly excluded from this category. They are not considered weapons.

Knives that can be opened with one hand, such as switchblades and butterfly knives, are prohibited in Switzerland, as are daggers with symmetrical blades. Weapons law and pocket-knife models dovetail seamlessly. This harmonisation is deliberate and reflects the will of the political establishment.

When the national government considered a minor revision of the weapons ordinance in 2016 and planned to stipulate that knives and daggers are considered weapons if their blade is over five centimetres long, parliament reacted immediately.

The plans elicited “confusion” and “incomprehension”, one parliamentarian from the Centre Party wrote in a motion, asking: “Will the famous Swiss Army knife be banned?”

But the confusion was quickly resolved. The modification had been requested by the knife industry, and did not affect pocket knives, the government said. On the contrary, it was about eliminating over-regulation, it said. Specifically, it was about decriminalising short daggers, such as oyster openers, because the misuse of such objects is hardly imaginable.

Isolated acts of violence

Pocket knives too are rarely misused. There is no reliable data on this in Switzerland because police organisations do not record the type of weapon used in violent crimes involving stabbing. However, court proceedings and the public debate on knife violence, which has increased significantly in Switzerland (see infobox), indicate that pocket knives are rarely used as weapons.

The manufacturer reacts

More widespread is the legal danger posed by knives to their carriers – and not only in Japan. Victorinox, the manufacturer of Swiss pocket knives, points out the legal risks on its website.

The company also instructs its sales staff accordingly, the company writes in a response to SWI swissinfo.ch: “In Britain, for example, where stricter regulations apply than in the rest of Europe, we have displayed a notice in our store informing customers of the local legal provisions.”

Since the Prevention of Crime Act of 1953, Britain has tightened its weapons laws several times; in many places, carrying knives is de facto banned, or permissible only under certain conditions, such as the knife being in a fishing tackle box or car boot.

Spain and the Netherlands also have restrictive laws on the use of knives. In the European Union, most countries allow the carrying of knives with a blade length of 7-7.5 centimetres, but require that they not be opened with one hand and not be locked. But the regulations are not standardised.

Victorinox admits that it is difficult to keep an eye on the legal framework – which sometimes changes at short notice – across all its markets. So they advise customers to refer to the local authorities. “We cannot provide any binding legal information,” the company says. Its contracts with sales partners stipulate that they may only sell the knives in accordance with the law.

In product development, the focus is on understanding the pocket knife as a multifunctional tool for everyday use. “By definition, most of our models are not considered dangerous objects in most markets,” says Victorinox. “For certain larger models, a technical solution to adapt to legal requirements has been developed, for example, for models that can be opened with one hand.”

However, the manufacturer is clearly not entirely comfortable with the issue, which also harbours considerable economic risks. From next year, Victorinox intends to create a compliance centre to monitor the regulatory conditions and risks more closely.

A question of honour

On the conviction in Osaka, Victorinox says it is aware that “particularly strict regulations apply in Japan.” However, it says, there is a relatively wide margin of discretion in interpretation. “This means that judgments depend on the situation.”

The convicted Japanese man is hoping that this wide margin of discretion will help him. Although his fine was only about the same as a parking penalty, he intends to appeal, his lawyer Toshiaki Takae told SWI swissinfo.ch. For his client, it’s a question of defending his honour.

Source: Swiss Info

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