ST. LOUIS — Americans are walking around with more knives in their pockets, although not for the same reasons they are rushing to buy guns.
Scouts, hunters and anglers, collectors and office workers who just want a tool for opening packages are boosting pocketknife sales. For a decade, airline safety rules and the Great Recession had cut into sales.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, airplane passengers accustomed to traveling with a pocketknife found that they had to leave it in checked luggage. Even then, TSA agents sometimes confiscate a blade.
Sales now are rebounding, due partly to a growing desire for preparedness in the aftermath of disasters such as the Joplin, Mo., tornado and Superstorm Sandy.
"A knife is simply a very useful tool," says Doug Ritter. He is founder of Knife Rights, a nonprofit he calls "the NRA for knife owners." His organization worked with the National Rifle Association to legalize switchblades in Missouri.
"For a part of America, putting a knife in your pocket when you get up is simply a part of getting dressed," Ritter says. "It's like putting your keys in your pocket — it's normal."
Paul Beretta is among the most active collectors and has his own website, www.paulberetta.com. The retired computer programmer has more than 500 knives, mostly Spydercos. He has 70 versions of one model, the Kiwi.
"I collect knives I don't use because they are pleasant and interesting to look at," he explains.
He adds, "Nobody needs a hundred shot glasses or thimbles, or a dozen beer company clocks on their wall."
Those who claim their collections are investments are "either deluding themselves," he says, "or just trying to placate their wife."
Beretta is single.
Besides the beauty of design and the craftsmanship, a knife's basic utility is what draws aficionados.
Jared Karlin, 30, a sign language interpreter in St. Louis, began collecting knives when he was about 12. He now has nearly three dozen fixed and folding blades for which he paid a total of about $5,000.
"I'm not carrying a knife as a weapon," Karlin emphasized. "I carry it as a tool. I use it daily for some of the most mundane stuff you can imagine — from cleaning under my fingernails, to cutting open that blister pack from the big box store, to opening the mail. I'm always finding a use for it."
He recently used his knife to help in an emergency. He was driving with his mother in north St. Louis County and came upon a car that had crashed into an Interstate 270 barrier.
When an off-duty firefighter asked for something with which to pry open a car window, Karlin was ready. He handed over his Becker 3, a sturdy, 7-inch fixed blade used for prying doors and breaking glass. The firefighter broke open a window, cut the victim's seat belt and pulled him from the car. The crash victim survived.
A.G. Russell, 79, is considered the dean of the knife business. He's been a designer, manufacturer and retailer for 49 years and says he has watched his profit margin shrink each year.
"So what I've got to do is make knives of equal or better quality that sell for less money," Russell says. "But at some point, I've got to raise the price."
Russell invented a drink dispenser device before opening the A.G. Russell Knives in Rogers, Ark. He still has considerable walk-in business, coupled with Internet and catalog sales.
Sales, he says, are better now than at any time in five years.
"Because I think people are tired of sitting on their money and scared of what's going to happen," Russell adds.
That's a common theme among knife people. They see knife sales increasing in parallel with guns.
Gun sales have jumped across the country on fears that President Barack Obama would try to restrict gun sales. He hasn't, although the massacre of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut has revived talk of gun control.
Knife companies hark back to America's past and often emphasize their patriotism and religion.
At Buck Knives in Post Falls, Idaho, business meetings open with a prayer. Each knife comes with literature that says: "From the beginning, management determined to make God the Senior Partner."
At the giant National Rifle Association convention held in St. Louis last April, knife buyers lined up at the company's exhibit, eager to have purchases autographed by C.J. Buck, president of the company that bears his family's iconic name.
The company was founded in 1902 by Buck's great-grandfather. The Buck Model 110 has been so popular since its introduction in the 1960s that consumers sometimes call any brand of knife a "Buck."
Buck reacted to customer criticism a few years ago by bringing back some manufacturing it had outsourced to China. Now, "90 to 95 percent of our new products every year are USA-made," Buck says.
Nationally, knife sales have increased steadily for two years, says Jan Billeb, executive director of the American Knife & Tool Institute, an industry group.
She points to the estimated 37 million hunters and anglers in the U.S. as one big reason. "If you're going hunting," she says, "you can't go without a knife."
Not everyone likes knives.
The district attorney in New York City has taken aim at pocketknives. He has filed criminal charges against some people just for possessing a folding knife that can be opened with one hand.
Ritter's Knife Rights organization has responded with an ongoing lawsuit against the prosecutor. Ritter says the arrests were unwarranted and that none of the knives had been used for any criminal activity.