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Lansing — The Michigan Senate on Thursday voted to legalize switchblade knives, approving a bill that would lift a longstanding prohibition critics say was motivated by exagerrated depictions spread a half-century ago in movies such as “West Side Story.”

While switchblades may have appeared as menacing threats when wielded by fictional Jets and Sharks street gangs in the musical and 1961 film, they are far less foreboding in real life, said sponsoring state Sen. Rick Jones.

“If a guy were in a gang fight today and pulled out a knife, he’d probably get shot,” Jones, R-Grand Ledge, said last month in a legislative committee hearing.

The Michigan penal code currently prohibits anyone from selling or possessing a pocket-like knife that can be opened by the flick of a button or pressure on the handle. Violators can be punished by up to a year in prison or a fine of $300, but the prohibition does not apply to a one-armed individuals who ostensibly need an easier-opening knife.

The law is loosely enforced, said Jones, a former sheriff, who added it’s important for the state to get outdated laws off the books.

“They’re currently being sold all over Michigan, and I think it would be a terrible mistake to give a young person a year in prison for buying something they think is legal,” Jones said Thursday after his bill passed the upper chamber in a 36-1 vote.

Even if law enforcement officers do arrest someone for switchblade possession, it’s “50-50 whether your prosecutor will pursue this or not,” Michigan State Police Sgt. Tim Fitzgerald told legislators last month in committee.

Switchblade-style knives are commonly carried by enthusiasts, sportsmen and workers, Fitzgerald said, adding that state police “have absolutely no problem” with legislators repealing the law that bans them.

Knife Rights, an Arizona-based advocacy group, says 43 states allow some form of civilian switchblade possession, and 30 allow everyday carry. The group is urging Michigan to repeal its law and says it has helped achieve a similar change in 12 other states, including Indiana and Wisconsin.

A switchblade is no quicker to deploy than a legal one-hand opening folding knife, according to Knife Rights, which says they also provide a level of user safety because they lock in a closed position.

Michigan’s prohibition was “a result of political hysteria created by Hollywood excesses of the 1950s portraying fictional gangs’ and delinquents’ use of switchblades,” the group said in a letter to legislators. “The bans that were passed then were not based on any actual crime data.”

The switchblade legalization now heads to the House for further review.

The bill would not lift state prohibitions on other bladed weapons like stilettos and daggers. It is illegal to use any knife with a blade over three inches long against another person with unlawful intent to harm them.

joosting@detroitnews.com

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