The movie West Side Story is a fan favorite. It has everything any musical fanatic would want—forbidden love, great music, and switchblades. However, one of the side-effects of West Side Story'ssuccess is that it caused countless politicians to panic and enact laws prohibiting the possession of switchblades in the 1950s and 1960s.

Now, following the success of Wisconsin's 2011 Concealed Carry Law, on February 6, 2016, Wisconsin passed 2015 Wisconsin Act 149 (Act 149), permitting the concealed carry of all knives, including switchblades, without a concealed carry license. Act 149 is a dramatic departure from Wisconsin's prior prohibition of all switchblades and raises significant questions as to what private employers can do to prohibit employees and other individuals from bringing concealed knives into the workplace.

What is a switchblade?

Unless you grew up watching West Side Story on repeat (or illegally carried a switchblade), you may need a primer on what a switchblade is or how it is different from any other knife. In the simplest terms, a switchblade, or "automatic knife," is a knife that opens by the simple press of a button or device on the blade's handle. A video discussing switchblades is here.

What does Act 149 mean for switchblades?

In the broadest terms, Act 149 has made the concealed possession of all knives, including switchblades, lawful in almost all situations. Act 149's key takeaways include:

  • Act 149 has removed knives of all types from being considered a "weapon" subject to Wisconsin's concealed carry law. In other words, the concealed carry of a knife, including a switchblade, is not subject to Wisconsin's Concealed Carry Law, and individuals carrying concealed knives are not required to have a concealed carry license.
  • The only people prohibited from carrying a concealed knife are individuals: (1) "prohibited from possessing a firearm"; and (2) who go "armed with a concealed knife that is a dangerous weapon." (Wis. Stat. § 941.231) However, because Act 149 specifically excluded knives from the definition of a "dangerous weapon," it is unclear as to under what circumstances a "concealed knife is a dangerous weapon."
  • Act 149 prohibits local governments from enacting knife regulations or ordinances stricter than Act 149.
  • Act 149 permits "political subdivision(s)" to enact and enforce ordinances prohibiting the possession of a knife in a building, or part of a building, owned, occupied, or controlled by the political subdivision. Act 149, however, makes no reference as to what private employers can do prohibit the possession of knives on their premises.

What can employers do?

Many questions remain as to what employers can do to prevent employees, customers, patients, or visitors from carrying knives and switchblades onto their property. Unlike the changes made in 2011 to Wisconsin's Concealed Carry Law, which prohibited employers from restricting the rights of employees to store weapons in their personal vehicles, even if on company property, Act 149 does not address employers' rights at all. Thus, employers should still be able to enforce employment policies prohibiting knives and other weapons in the workforce. Similarly, property owners should still have the ability to prohibit knives and other dangerous items on their property.

What should employers do?

Though it remains unclear as to how Act 149 impacts private employers, employers should review their workplace policies to decide how and whether they need to be modified to specifically address the possession of knives in the workplace. Moreover, in the event an employer has signs informing the public that weapons are prohibited at in the workplace, it should consider modifying those signs to specifically address knives, as well as other types of prohibited weapons. Finally, in the event an employer decides to do nothing, it should be cognizant of how the possession of concealed knives can raise serious occupational safety and health issues related to workplace violence and could expose employers to liability under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, wrongful injury claims, and workers' compensation claims.