This article appeared in Knife Magazine in November 2022.
Know Your Knife Laws – Location – Location: Sensitive Spaces
By Daniel C. Lawson, Attorney and Knife Expert
Knife laws with location-based restrictions on the possession and carry of knives can be placed into three categories, namely home/residence, public carry, and sensitive location. These restrictions are premised on the view that the restricted knives are weapons. Culinary and table knives are rarely the subject of possessory limits despite the fact the same are often employed as weapons. (See” Statistics and Steak Knives” from the November 2021 issue of Knife Magazine.)
Restrictions applicable to one’s home are confined to knives that have become stigmatized. Pennsylvania law allows one to possess an automatic knife, but only as a “curio.” The law states explicitly that it is unlawful to make, sell, use or otherwise deal with such a knife, which presumably means it must be kept on a shelf or in a glass case.
Pennsylvania state representative Martin Cause, whose district is home to W.R. Case and Guardian Tactical Knives, sponsored HB 1029, which would eliminate the automatic knife prohibitions in that state. The bill has enjoyed almost universal support and hopefully will pass the Pennsylvania Senate before the current legislative term ends.
A few other states prohibit specific knives from even home use. It is unlawful in New Jersey to manufacture, transfer, or dispose of automatic knives and a few other types. However, the prohibited items may be kept and used to defend one’s home under the rule of law stated in State of New Jersey v. Montalvo, 162 A.3d 270 (2017). Blanket prohibitions pertaining to home-based possession are uncommon and constitutionally suspect. The “keeping” of arms is largely uncontroversial, as opposed to carrying the same in public. Criminal prosecutions of simple in-home possession of a forbidden knife are extremely uncommon.
Public carry laws command a higher level of attention. A total of twelve states1 do not restrict the public carry of knives, although three of these states impose some limitations on persons below the age of 21. Minnesota and Pennsylvania are among the six states that prohibit automatic knives but do not otherwise restrict public carry of any other types.
By contrast, a few states, such as California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, have very restrictive public carry laws.
Most states regulate concealed public carry using some combination of blade length and style, or name restrictions. For example, it has been unlawful in Alabama to carry a Bowie knife or “other instrument of like kind” since 1852. A legislative enactment will remove this limitation effective January 1, 2023. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that states may regulate concealed carry of weapons in common use, provided open carry is an option.
The third category of location restrictions concerns what the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v Heller described as “sensitive spaces,” referring to weapon restrictions applicable to schools and some “government buildings.”
All states have restrictions applicable to knives in this category. The extent or scope of the restrictions is often beyond what most of us would expect.
Courtrooms are places of dispute resolution. Our adversarial justice system brings parties to a dispute into the same room. Persons accused of violent crimes and their victims are often separated by only a few feet. The process requires that those present be free from intimidation. Eliminating potential weapons is a reasonable precaution.
Primary and secondary level schools are places where individuals who have not yet reached adulthood are gathered. They are considered to be legally incompetent in many respects. State motor vehicle codes typically impose speed limitations on thoroughfares where primary and secondary-level students are proceeding to or from schools. Students at such levels – especially at the primary school age – lack the maturity and ability to remain mindful of vehicular traffic.
Some fourteen states extend “school” knife restrictions to the university level, where essentially all students have reached the legal age of majority. We do not consider college and university professors to be in loco parentis, nor do motor vehicle codes prescribe extraordinary regulation for streets immediately adjoining higher education campuses.
In 1976 the Illinois legislature found:
that the phenomenon of wide spread campus disorders and resulting destruction of university property cannot be tolerated in a State whose commitment to education for all its citizens is among the first priorities of government.
This “finding” by the legislature was the expressed reason for the enactment 720 ILCS 5/21-6 captioned “Unauthorized Possession or Storage of Weapons.” It provides:
Whoever possesses or stores any weapon enumerated in Section 33A-1 in any building or on land supported in whole or in part with public funds or in any building on such land without prior written permission from the chief security officer for such land or building commits a Class A misdemeanor.
The statute refers to another part of the Illinois Code for the description of prohibited weapons, which includes any knife with a blade at least three inches in length. The statute is not limited to school or university property and includes “any building or on land supported in whole or in part with public funds.” The “sensitivity” of the locations covered is questionable.
The U.S. Supreme Court has not analyzed the scope or limit of sensitive space restrictions. However, the issue was mentioned in the recent case of New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc v Bruen, which concerned the state handgun license carry law. The state invoked the sensitive exception as allowing its very restrictive law. The Supreme Court stated:
Although we have no occasion to comprehensively define “sensitive places” in this case, we do think respondents err in their attempt to characterize New York’s proper-cause requirement as a “sensitive-place” law. In their view, “sensitive places” where the government may lawfully disarm law-abiding citizens include all “places where people typically congregate and where law-enforcement and other public-safety professionals are presumptively available.” . . . It is true that people sometimes congregate in “sensitive places,” and it is likewise true that law enforcement professionals are usually presumptively available in those locations. But expanding the category of “sensitive places” simply to all places of public congregation that are not isolated from law enforcement defines the category of “sensitive places” far too broadly. Respondent’s argument would in effect exempt cities from the Second Amendment and would eviscerate the general right to publicly carry arms for self-defense that we discuss in detail below. . . Put simply, there is no historical basis for New York to effectively declare the island of Manhattan a “sensitive place” simply because it is crowded and protected generally by the New York City Police Department. (Citations omitted)
The Court did not suggest a specific standard for the sensitive place exception and indicated that it would remain one of the “close questions at the margins.” It did rule that the New York public carry license law was unconstitutional.
Within a few days, the New York legislature passed a replacement statute that included a provision whereby Times Square – an intersection of streets in New York City – should be treated as a sensitive space and that the City should define the limits of the restricted area. The City then designated Times Square as an area encompassing more than thirty city blocks.
Those who seek to restrict basic human freedoms often push the “margins” well beyond what we might expect or what might be reasonably discernible, as in the case of the above-mentioned Illinois possession and storage of weapons law. The recent Bruen decision has required several states to revise weapon laws. The American Knife & Tool Institute (AKTI) is closely following this issue.
The AKTI website, www.AKTI.org, provides information on location and circumstance-based restrictions relating to knives. Valuable state knife laws and other resources are available to give individuals the confidence to carry the knives and tools they choose best for their needs. We also seek to relieve the knife community from improvident regulations through remedial legislation – repealing or clarifying knife laws! Sign up for our emailed News & Legislative Updates to learn more about AKTI and our initiatives.
1AK, AZ, IN, KY, MT, NH, OH, OK, SC, SD, TN, and WI.