AUSTIN -- This has become the year of the knife.New federal rules will allow pocketknives on airplanes. And state legislatures, including Tennessee, Kansas, Indiana, Alaska and Texas, are considering measures to legalize the switchblade, the favored weapon of fictional midcentury street gangs.Here in Texas, where weapons laws tend toward the permissive, switchblade legislation has advanced to the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence."I suppose, in part," said state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, describing his plan to legalize carrying switchblades, "it's political."To make sense of it all, you have to know about Dutton. He has a National Rifle Association rating of F, a personal firearms history that qualifies as colorful even by local standards and possibly something downright subversive in mind.But first you have to know about Knife Rights Inc.For the last seven years, a wilderness survival expert by the name of Doug Ritter has been building national support for laws allowing more knives in more places.Starting in his home state, Arizona, Ritter set out to turn varying local ordinances into statewide policy. Gun-rights advocates embraced his cause. Ted Nugent's endorsement decorated his website.Before long, Ritter turned his attention to legalizing instruments with such comically antiquated names as the dirk, the stiletto and the dagger. To paraphrase his line of argument, those weapons usually pose a mortal hazard only if you are a character in a game of Clue.When he started campaigning to legalize the switchblade, though, Ritter touched a nerve. Laws against the distinctive push-button mechanism date to the onstage gang wars between the Sharks and the Jets (on Broadway in West Side Story). By the time James Dean's character rumbled in Rebel Without a Cause, the knives had become a potent symbol, as one movie poster put it, of "Today's Juvenile Violence!"Still, Ritter's message found a receptive audience. Counting victories in New Hampshire and Missouri, he said, switchblades are now legal in 30 states, including 24 with no limitations on length.Knife-rights advocates are optimistic about the Texas bill."It's always been extremely odd to me that I can walk around in public, I can even go into the Capitol with a loaded firearm, yet I can't carry certain described kinds of knives," said Peter Wang, 51, an oilfield services company employee in Houston.From his national vantage, Ritter interpreted Dutton's sponsorship as a sign of bipartisan support.Dutton is chairman of the Committee on Urban Affairs.In 1989, he reported receiving death threats as the author of a proposal to ban assault rifles.Four years later, he was convicted of reckless conduct after his estranged wife claimed he had pointed a pistol at her.Over the years, Dutton has displayed a creative streak in his approach to gun control. In 1995, for example, he introduced a bill that would have made voter registration cards double as gun permits. Under that proposal, failing to cast a ballot would cost people the right to carry a weapon.