CHOOSING AN “EVERYWHERE KNIFE” CAN BE DIFFICULT DUE TO COMPLICATED KNIFE LAWS
I am often asked the question, particularly by folks who travel by car crossing many states, cities, and towns, “What knife can I carry that is 100% legal everywhere I go?” The unfortunate answer is that there is no such thing. However, we can come close.
Pitfalls on the Road
First off, the answer to why there is no such thing is that, in some places, no knife is legal for most people to carry. The most notorious example of this is Philadelphia.
Its draconian ordinance §10-820 Cutting Weapons in Public Places prohibits any person except first responders from the “use or possess[ion of] any cutting weapon upon the public streets or upon any public property at any time” unless it is being used in a “trade, profession, or calling.”
Their definition of a “cutting weapon” covers “any knife,” as well as anything else “that has a cutting edge similar to that of a knife.” Penalty is not less than $300 and imprisonment for not less than 90 days.
How often such ordinances are enforced is another matter entirely, but do you want to take the chance that you run into the odd law enforcement officer with a bad attitude or having a bad day?
That’s when it can get expensive, or even potentially life changing. Worth noting is that in our experience, most knife arrests or violations occur as a result of some other incident that brings you into contact with an officer, such as a traffic stop, being drunk and disorderly, or something similar.
There are always exceptions to every rule and New York City is the most infamous exception to this one. Most knife violations and confiscations (illegally seized, but they don’t care) in NYC result from having a knife clipped to a pocket.
NYC code prohibits any legal knife (under 4-inch blade) being visibly carried, so it must be carried completely concealed.
If you know exactly where you will be traveling, you can use Knife Rights’ LegalBlade app to find out what is the law (see sidebar on page 28) in that location. I’d recommend it to anyone who travels.
Beyond outright prohibition on carry of a knife, many states, cities, and towns prohibit knives with particular operating mechanisms, blade length, blade shape, or how it is carried, as well as other considerations.
Many places also have a vague catch-all weapon prohibition and/or a vague “carry with intent to use against another” prohibition that are open to interpretation.
Major metro areas particularly tend to enforce these vague knife laws and ordinances aggressively against any knife they perceive as a “weapon,” as opposed to a “tool.”
The penalties for breaking these knife laws, ordinances, or administrative codes vary, but the vast majority are misdemeanor offenses if it’s a state law, which is still a very serious concern.
Or it can be equivalent to a traffic ticket if it’s local code, which is generally less expensive but still painful. Sometimes the knife is confiscated, and although that isn’t always lawful, arguing with an officer over that can escalate the issue into a much bigger problem.
New Jersey is the only state where violating any of its knife prohibitions is a felony. Other states allow for a misdemeanor offense to be upgraded to a felony if the defendant has a prior criminal conviction.
Our experience is that this felony upgrade is almost always prosecuted. In New York City, for example, we commonly see this, even when the original criminal conviction is decades old.
If your goal is a “universal” or “nearly universal” carry, let’s look at what is generally prohibited and may potentially cause problems so you can avoid carrying these knives when traveling.
Six states still outright ban automatic knives, and an additional 11 states ban, or restrict in some manner, open carry.
These bans generally also include butterfly (balisong) and gravity knives (though there are a few exceptions.) If looking for a “universal” knife, take autos, butterfly knives, and gravity knives off your list.
“…most knife arrests or violations occur as a result of some other incident that brings you into contact with an officer…”
In a number of places, folders with assisted-opening (spring-assisted) blades are also banned or are potentially considered switchblades under the law.
Unfortunately, many officers are ignorant of the difference between an assisted-opener and an auto and may cite or arrest you for carrying a perfectly legal knife they mistakenly believe to be illegal where autos are banned.
We see this occur even in states that have clear statues that allow for assisted openers.
Usually that can be sorted out with a competent attorney, but it’ll cost you time and money and you may still not get your knife back, or get it returned in worse condition than when it was seized.
And, no, this is generally not something over which you can successfully bring a civil lawsuit for an unlawful arrest or the like. Also worth keeping in mind, in our experience, arguing points of law with an officer usually does not end well.
Blade locking mechanisms are not illegal under any state law, however there are local bans in some of the 37 states without Knife Law Preemption.
Knife Rights’ success in passing Knife Law Preemption, ensuring that no local law can be more restrictive than state law, has repealed many of these and other local bans, but they still exist here and there.
As such, your “universal” carry folder should not have a locking blade.
When it comes to blade shape (style), there are two issues. The first is a straightforward ban at state or local levels of certain blades styles.
Daggers, dirks, and stilettos are the most commonly banned from carry, but Bowie knives are also commonly prohibited.
In most cases these designations are not defined under the law, though sometimes they are defined in some manner by court precedent.
Usually, the prohibition doesn’t differentiate between a folder or fixed blade. In the case of a dagger, etc., while that is generally interpreted as requiring two sharp edges, and some statutes are specific and include “double-edged” knives, it is not always the case.
Where the law bans double edges and doesn’t say “dagger,” it generally means any blade with a sharp top edge, even if just partial and not symmetrical.
Then there are the problems we see with what some would consider “aggressive” blades shapes as well as those promoted specifically as weapons.
This is especially a problem when the law prohibits any knife “designed for use as a weapon,” “designed to stab,” or some similar language.
It doesn’t matter that you don’t look at the blade in that manner or that there’s a history of non-weapon use. The problem is that law enforcement in anti-knife jurisdictions view it that way.
Blade styles that potentially cause issues in this regard include tanto, hawkbill (karambit), and talon, to name some common examples. If it looks like something a bad guy in a Hollywood movie or TV show would carry, it’s not likely a good choice for “universal” carry.
If the manufacturer or seller promotes it as a weapon (defensive or offensive), then that just compounds your problem. It is very difficult for your attorney to claim the knife is “just a tool” when the seller or manufacturer has advertised it as a weapon, or it is similar or identical to knives that are.
Moreover, if the manufacturer’s model name for the knife is, itself, suggestive that it is a weapon, this is another strike against you.
Some few ordinances specifically outlaw serrated edges. In other cases, that serves as a means by which an officer may determine that your knife is a weapon, not a tool, even when not in the law.
It doesn’t matter that this is irrational or not specifically illegal; that’s just our real-world experience.
SO LONG, TOO LONG
Restrictions on blade length are fairly common, particularly in local ordinances where there’s no state Knife Law Preemption statute. Some cover any carry; some are for concealed carry only.
Most are not terribly onerous, even if they rub us the wrong way. New York City’s under 4-inch limit, for example, still allows of a wide range of knives to carry.
The most common length limitation is 3 inches or under 3 inches. That is one reason you see a lot of folders with 2.9-inch blades. But that isn’t 100% universal. Chicago for example, has an under 2.5-inch limit for concealed carry.
Concealed versus open carry is also a consideration. Many places prohibit concealed carry or limit the blade length or style of knife that can be carried concealed, as noted above.
California, as another example, prohibits concealed carry of any fixed blade. At the opposite extreme, New York City is the only city of which we are aware that requires 100% concealed carry. A knife clipped to your pocket or on your belt will get you stopped in NYC.
Generally speaking, in regard to concealed vs. open carry, a folder clipped to your pocket is not considered concealed as the clip and top of the knife is visible. Nor, generally, is a folder carried in pouch on your belt.
There are other oddball prohibitions of various sorts in some places, but the above cover the biggest problems for knife carriers trying to select a knife that most likely won’t get them in trouble.
So, what choices does this leave you for a knife least likely to create a problem when carried, wherever you travel in the U.S.? Your best bet is a non-locking folder with a non-aggressive blade shape, plain (non-serrated) edge, and an under 3-inch blade if carried open (clipped) or 2.5-inch blade (if carried concealed).
Bottom line on blade style for your “universal” knife is stick to non-aggressive “working tool” shapes such as drop point, mild clip point, sheepsfoot, Wharncliffe, and the like.
“Knife Rights’ LegalBlade app provides guidance at your fingertips to the knife laws of all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and over 40 cities.”
You are unlikely to have a problem with a traditional or modern style slip-joint pocketknife, Swiss Army Knife, or similar. If looking for a one-hand opener, a number of companies make non-locking one-hand opening folders.
If you are under 18 years of age, then there may be other considerations. Many places either outlaw knife carry by minors entirely, or provide an exception only under restricted circumstances, such as when with a parent or guardian or at work.
As but one example, if under 18, you cannot carry a knife in Chicago that has a blade 2 inches long or longer.
SILENCE IS GOLDEN
Finally, a word about dealing with an officer who is overly interested in the knife you are carrying. Knife Rights and our legal advisors strongly suggest you assert your right to remain silent if stopped and questioned by an officer under any circumstances.
While silence is the best policy, if you choose not to do so and the officer asks, “Why are you carrying this knife?” we suggest that you do not claim it’s for self-defense. In many cases, that’s an invitation to arrest under their “intent” law.
Your knife is a tool, period. You can view more on this critical subject at KnifeRights.org/if-arrested. Most of us never expect to be stopped or arrested, but then it happens. Be prepared to deal with it and you will put yourself in a far better legal defense position.
This article does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as legal advice. Legal advice can only be obtained by an attorney licensed to practice in the jurisdiction in question.
IS MY KNIFE LEGAL? FREE APP WILL HELP
Knife Rights continues to aggressively rewrite knife law in America with dozens of bills repealing knife bans enacted since 2010, but knife owners in many jurisdictions still need to be careful about what knives they possess and carry.
Knife Rights’ LegalBlade app provides guidance at your fingertips to the knife laws of all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and over 40 cities.
Knowledge of the law is the first step in avoiding an unfortunate arrest, loss of your knife, or other legal complications.
The app presents the knife laws in easy-to-understand color-coded tables. It also includes the text of the law, plus applicable portions of court decisions that further define what is legal and what is not.
“What to Do If Stopped or Arrested,” accessed by a red button on the app opening screen, provides clear, concise information from knife law legal eagle Evan F. Nappen.
Review it to protect your rights if you are ever stopped for carrying a knife or arrested for a knife law violation.
The app also includes the information and links needed to help find the hundreds of local knife laws and ordinances not included in the app.
Knife Rights’ LegalBlade App is available for iOS (App Store) or Android (Play Store). Search for “LegalBlade” (one word), or go to LegalBlade.org and download and install LegalBlade for free.