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Are you breaking the law with that pocket knife?

Mountain Home Republican Rep. Pete Nielsen wants to make it clear that you can carry a small knife without a concealed weapons permit in the state, but like most things, making the change the right way is a little more complicated that it would seem.

Right now, Idaho requires a concealed weapons permit for much more than just handguns. Here’s what the law says:

“Except in the person’s place of abode or fixed place of business, or on property in which the person has any ownership or leasehold interest, a person shall not carry a concealed weapon without a license to carry a concealed weapon. For the purposes of this section, a concealed weapon means any dirk, dirk knife, bowie knife, dagger, pistol, revolver or any other deadly or dangerous weapon. The provisions of this section shall not apply to any lawfully possessed shotgun or rifle.”

Nielsen said law enforcement officials have told him that pocket knives, even small ones, count as “any other deadly or dangerous weapon.”

So he wants to exclude knives shorter than 4 inches, as well as make it clear that it’s OK to carry pepper spray and lawful tazers. The debate in House State Affairs this morning was where in the code, exactly, to do that. Nielsen is working with the sheriff’s association and other lawmakers now on where to add the exclusion (probably in that last sentence I quoted above).

I could have sworn I could remember some debate about knife blade length over the years… So I looked it up, and found that an Idaho law redrawn in 2000, which made it clear that it was illegal for students to carry weapons on school grounds – except for pocket knives with blades shorter than 2.5 inches long.

So theoretically, can a student may be following the letter of one law and find him or herself violating the other?

These two pieces of state code are both in Title 18, both in Chapter 33. The concealed weapons law is 18-3302. The school prohibition is 18-3302D. But the school prohibition doesn’t outline a specific knife length in its own words, instead it says this: “’Deadly or dangerous weapon’ means any weapon as defined in 18 U.S.C. section 930.”

The U.S. code then defines that as “a weapon, device, instrument, material, or substance, animate or inanimate, that is used for, or is readily capable of, causing death or serious bodily injury, except that such term does not include a pocket knife with a blade of less than 2 1/2 inches in length.”

There is no real definition of “deadly or dangerous weapon” in the concealed weapons law.

But since in they’re in the same title and chapter, wouldn’t the second definition suffice? Not necessarily – it depends on how the lawmakers word it. In the school weapons ban, the definition is specific: “As used in this section.” In some other code sections, definitions are written with much broader intent, like “As used in this chapter, and other applicable sections of the Idaho Code.”

So in this case, the 2.5-inch blades allowed in schools could still be illegal to carry if you don’t have a concealed weapon permit – at least until or if Rep. Nielsen makes this change. (And then you could have two laws referring to two different lengths of knife blades).

Here’s a quick aside about that guns in schools measure:

The bill was brought by a Southern Idaho Republican and supported by gun owners including Gerry Sweet, who was the legislative chairman of the Idaho State Rifle and Pistol Association and later became an Idaho representative of the National Rifle Association and a state lawmaker.

The Statesman quoted him on Dec. 21, 1999, which oddly was my very first day on the job there after three years at the Twin Falls Times-News (it was my birthday – which is why I remember that): “When you have a student in school, we are not talking about the same rights adults have,” Sweet said then. “As a citizen, I support the school’s right to make a safe environment.”

It was a redrawn version of a bill that passed the House and Senate the year before but was vetoed by then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne. The reason he gave: the legislators had stipulated that it was OK for teen-agers to leave hunting rifles in their cars in school parking lots (as many of them remembered doing themselves). Kempthorne’s office received more than 1,000 calls, emails and faxes urging him to reject the bill because of that.

Columbine was still on everyone’s mind then – but it’s pretty interesting to read those old stories in light of the current debates happening after the Newtown shooting.

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