This article appeared in Knife Magazine in October 2021.
Know Your Knife Laws – The Long and the Short of It
By Daniel C. Lawson, Attorney and Knife Expert
Knife carry restrictions based on blade length are common across the United States. Distinctions that derive from a measurement – as opposed to name or type classification such as poniard, dirk, or bowie – offer a higher level of objectivity or predictability. In some instances, a blade length limitation is combined with or serves as an alternative basis for legal restriction.
Iowa state law (§702.7) provides that it is unlawful to carry a “dangerous weapon defined to include any “dagger, razor, stiletto, switchblade knife, knife having a blade exceeding five inches in length.” The absence of the disjunctive “or” after “switchblade knife” indicates that the five-inch allowance does not apply to daggers, stilettos, razors, and “switchblades.” The law in neighboring Nebraska (28-1201) defines “knife” as any “dagger, dirk, knife, or stiletto with a blade over three and one-half inches in length and which, in the manner, it is used or intended to be used, is capable of producing death or serious bodily injury.” Thus, a “dagger” with a blade of three and one-half inches would not be restricted in Nebraska but would be an unlawful “dangerous weapon” in Iowa.
A Connecticut statute (§ 53-206) provides as pertinent:
Any person who carries upon his or her person any BB. gun, blackjack, metal or brass knuckles, or any dirk knife, or any switch knife, or any knife having an automatic spring release device by which a blade is released from the handle, having a blade of over one and one-half inches in length, or stiletto, or any knife the edged portion of the blade of which is four inches or more in length, any police baton or nightstick, or any martial arts weapon or electronic defense weapon as defined in § 53a-3 , or any other dangerous or deadly weapon or instrument, shall be guilty of a class E felony.
In the case of State v. Harris, 258 A2d 319 (1968), the defendant possessed what was described as an “ordinary bone-handled jackknife containing one blade which measured three and three-eighths inches in length when police officers were directed to bring him to the police headquarters. The reason for the trip to the police station was not mentioned. No violent act on his part is suggested within the published decision of the Court.
Harris was found guilty of possession of an “other dangerous or deadly weapon.” However, there was no explanation as to why an ordinary pocketknife within the legal blade length limit was uniquely dangerous, apart from some indications of an unwholesome attitude. It should be noted that the defendant also had in his possession a deck of playing cards that featured “lewd images on the reverse side” and that he was also found guilty of possessing “obscene literature.”
The Circuit Court Appellate Division observed:
The statute particularizes with great specificity the type of knife prohibited, and the phrase ‘any other dangerous or deadly weapon’ obviously designates a type of weapon other than those specifically described. If this were not so, the phrase ‘or any knife the edged portion of the blade of which is four inches or over in length’ would be superfluous.
The prosecution had blatantly ignored the statutory 4-inch threshold without which the possession of any knife would constitute a class E felony in that state. The appellate court appropriately reversed the dangerous weapon conviction.1
Connecticut prosecutors made another attempt to ignore the statutory blade length threshold and the precedent of State v. Harris and convicted an individual based on his possession of a knife with a blade measuring three and one-half inches in State v. Holloway, 528 A2d 1176 (1987). Defendant Holloway was the victim – not the aggressor – in a fight where Holloway used the knife defensively. Holloway was charged with “assault in the second degree” due to the injury inflicted upon his assailant and possession of a dangerous weapon. Holloway’s knife was not an otherwise restricted dirk or automatic knife. The trial court convicted him of both charges and precluded his self-defense claim, although there was sufficient evidence to establish the issue for the jury. On appeal, the deadly weapon conviction was affirmed, although a new trial was ordered on the assault charge where Holloway would be entitled to assert the right of self-defense. This absurd ruling held that the otherwise legal knife was an unlawful deadly weapon because it had been used to inflict injury, notwithstanding that self-defense may have legally justified using the knife!
The Connecticut Supreme Court in State v. Ramos 860 A2d 249 (2004) eventually overruled this aspect of the Holloway case, which it stated created an “insane legal paradox.”
Prosecutors in Michigan have also attempted to ignore blade length provisions where a statute (750.226) provides that one having unlawful intent to injure another who “goes armed” with a knife “having a blade over three inches in length or any other dangerous or deadly weapon” and commits a felony.
One Benny Parker was causing “problems” at a bar and was asked to leave. He “produced” a small knife with the blade exposed and became disruptive before being subdued and disarmed. Parker was charged and convicted of violating 750.226 and with felonious assault. On appeal at People v Parker, 795 N.W.2d 596 (2010), the Michigan Court of Appeals vacated the 750.226 possession with intent conviction as there was no evidence that the blade was longer than three inches. The Court stated that while the knife was admitted into the evidence and exhibited to the jury, there was simply no evidence of the essential element of blade length. People v Parker was not an outlier. Similar outcomes have occurred on appeals in the unreported cases of People v Hollowell (2011) and People v Taylor (2013). The courts vacated the convictions in the absence of proof as to blade length.
The issue of how blade length is determined is often an open question. Statutes that prescribe how the critical length is determined are the exception rather than the rule. The Connecticut statute mentioned above specifies “any knife the edged portion of the blade of which is four inches or more in length” is ambiguous. It could be interpreted to measure the actual length of the sharpened edge, which in many instances is a curve. Does it refer to a measurement of the chord of the curve or the arc? The difference can be significant on a blade with more curve, such as a “skinner” pattern. The Connecticut statute may be vulnerable to a vagueness challenge as applied to some knives.
Apart from Connecticut, those states that provide a statutory description of the critical dimension do not refer to sharpened or unsharpened portions of the blade. A 12-inch blade length limitation generally applies in Georgia. The relevant statutory definition §16-11-125.1 provides:
(2) “Knife” means a cutting instrument designed for the purpose of offense and defense consisting of a blade that is greater than 12 inches in length which is fastened to a handle.
This statute suggests that the measurement applies to the blade, which extends from the handle. The Rhode Island concealed carry restriction §11-47-42 is slightly more precise:
No person shall wear or carry concealed upon his person, any of the above-mentioned instruments or weapons, or any razor, or knife of any description having a blade of more than three (3) inches in length measuring from the end of the handle where the blade is attached to the end of the blade, or other weapon of like kind or description.
The American Knife & Tool Institute (AKTI) promulgated a suggested protocol for determining blade length in 2005, which reads:
Where a statute, regulation, or ordinance refers to knife blade length, the measurement shall be the straight line extending from the tip of the blade to the forward-most aspect of the hilt or handle.
Among the states that have a judicially established standard for measuring blade length, most have adopted a rule generally consistent with the AKTI protocol.2 A few cases have applied a measurement of the sharpened portion standard.
A California statute pertaining to knives on school grounds applies to any “knife having a blade longer than two and one-half inches.” In the juvenile proceeding In re ROSALIO S. 41 Cal.Rptr.2d 534 (1995), a juvenile was found delinquent based on his possession of a “Leatherman” tool having a blade as measured by the trial court at two and one-half inches. On appeal, the Court held that only the sharpened portion of the blade should be considered within the context of the school statute, which brought the item within the limit. It should be noted that a subsequent juvenile proceeding In re T.B. 91 Cal.Rptr.3d 1 (2009) also involving a multi-tool, the finding of delinquency was upheld where the blade was one inch in length but “locked in place.”
The Supreme Court of Nevada in Bradvica v State 760 P2d 139 (1988) vacated convictions for possession of a dangerous knife and possession of an illegal weapon. The knife in question opened automatically. The Court held that “dangerous knife” was unconstitutionally vague and that the uncertainty concerning measurement should be resolved in favor of the defendant. The sharpened portion measured one and 15/16 on an inch or 1/16 less than the two inches maximum allowed.
One benefit to a blade length-based restriction is that it enables individuals to resort to objective criteria for determining compliance. Constitutional due process requires that blade length restrictions may not be arbitrary or vague.
We suggest using the AKTI protocol to guide those in states that have not prescribed a measurement standard to avoid controversy. It will likely yield the longest measurement for a given knife which is the conservative approach.
While blade length restrictions offer a degree of objectivity, such laws are arbitrary and are not a solution for criminal behavior. AKTI continues its efforts to oppose and remove arbitrary and improvident restrictions on man’s oldest tool.
The AKTI Protocol for Measuring Knife Blade Length can be found at www.akti.org/resources. Additional information about the knife laws in each state and the District of Columbia is also available and regularly updated.
1In the absence of any evidence showing an intent to distribute, an element of the offense charged, the obscenity conviction was also reversed.
2Colorado – People v Pickett 571 P2d 1089 (1977), Delaware – State v Harmon 800 A2d 1289 (2002), Illinois – People v Sito 994 N.E 2d 624 (2013), Texas – State v McMurrough 995 S.W.2d 944(1999).