This article appeared in Knife Magazine in June 2022.
Know Your Knife Laws – Daggers by Design or by Description?
By Daniel C. Lawson, Attorney and Knife Expert
Daggers are often maligned and frequently restricted. New Hampshire, for example, imposes dagger restrictions on convicted felons, but all other citizens may freely carry daggers – openly or concealed. 1 In Texas, it is unlawful for a pawnbroker to display a dagger in a storefront window or in such a way that it may be viewed from the street. This same restriction applies to dirks and pistols as well. The most common dagger restriction is concealed carry.
Hawaii is, perhaps, the most restrictive state. The Hawaii Deadly Weapons statute § 134-51 provides that it is unlawful to carry a “dirk, dagger, blackjack, slug shot, billy, metal knuckles, pistol, or other deadly or dangerous weapon” concealed, openly, in any vehicle, or to be “found” with such an item.
One Howard Giltner was found with a diving-type knife with a double-edged blade and was convicted of unlawful possession of a dagger. The circumstances about how the knife was found – as well as the issue of whether it was a “dagger” – were the subject of State v. Giltner 537 P2d 14 (1975), his appeal to the Hawaii Supreme Court.
Supposedly, an elderly woman walking in the Waikiki area in the late evening stopped two police officers and complained that a group of men on the landing of a building she had passed were “making a lot of noise and cursing at people down on the sidewalk.” The police officers proceeded to the building she had indicated as the location. They approached a group of three men who were not acting in any “unusual” manner. There was no evidence that these were the persons the woman had complained about. One of the officers recognized Giltner from a previous encounter and conducted a pat-down search which resulted in the discovery of Giltner’s diving knife.
The Hawaiian Supreme Court had little difficulty ruling that the search of Giltner was unconstitutional, which, by itself, would have set aside the conviction. The applicability of the “dagger” restriction was also reversed:
The instrument recovered by the police is a ‘Sea Hunter’ model diver’s knife, which is standard equipment for many divers engaged in deep-sea diving. It consists of a hard rubber handle with a blade measuring slightly less than 6 1/2 inches in length, one edge being serrated for most of its length and then curving convexly to the point. Since there is no indication from the statute itself or its legislative history that the Legislature intended to enlarge the definition of ‘dagger’ beyond its usual and ordinary meaning, we find that the trial judge erred in concluding that the knife in question was a ‘dagger’ within the meaning of the statute.
The Court further observed that the diving knife could not be an “other deadly or dangerous weapon” since it was neither “closely akin” to any of the prohibited weapons as enumerated in the statute nor was it an instrument “associated with criminal activity.”
Michigan law is also extremely restrictive with respect to double-edged knives, but its Supreme Court has taken a much different view than that of its Hawaiian counterpart. It is a felony, per 750.227, punishable by imprisonment up to five years to carry concealed any dagger, dirk, stiletto, a double-edged, non-folding, stabbing instrument of any length, or to possess such an item in any vehicle without regard to concealment or accessibility. (In People v. Harper 142 N.W.2d 496 (1966), a conviction under a separate sub-section of the same statute pertaining to firearms involving a disassembled shotgun locked in the trunk of a car was upheld on appeal.)
A police officer stopped a Michigan driver named John Lynn for having a “loud muffler.” He was unable to produce an operator’s license as his had been suspended. A search of the vehicle incident to arrest revealed a small quantity of marijuana and two “throwing knives.” Lynn did not contest the suspended license or controlled substance charges. He did engage a knife expert to testify as to the design differences between throwing knives and stabbing weapons. He was convicted on all counts but appealed only the weapon conviction. His argument on appeal to the Michigan Court of Appeals, an intermediate appeal level court, was that the jury instructions did not properly allow the jury to decide that the throwing knives were not stabbing instruments, notwithstanding the double-edged blade shape.
The Court of Appeals agreed that the instruction implied that double edges were conclusive as to a stabbing instrument and set aside the weapons conviction.
The state appealed that ruling to the Michigan Supreme Court, People v Lynn 86 N.W.2d 534 (1998), which re-instated the conviction stating:
If the jury finds that the object is a “dagger,” “dirk,” “stiletto,” or a “double-edged nonfolding stabbing instrument,” no further inquiry is required regarding whether the item is within the class of weapons the carrying of which in a vehicle is prohibited.
It is common for jury instructions to focus on each discreet element of an offense or issue. The standard jury instruction used in Michigan does not separate the elements of double-edged, non-folding, and stabbing.
The Connecticut Supreme Court, in State v DeCiccio 105A3d 165 (2014), undertook an exhaustive review of whether daggers were within the class of arms protected from infringement under the U.S. Constitution and clearly held that such knives were protected. One Jason DeCiccio was relocating from Connecticut to Massachusetts to begin employment with the Veterans Administration and was transporting his belongings in his automobile when he was involved in a collision with another vehicle. He was briefly hospitalized and, upon discharge, was arrested for what the Connecticut Supreme Court described as “an extensive collection of weapons” discovered in his vehicle. This “collection” consisted of two machetes, one sword, one expandable police baton, one knife with a brass-knuckles handle, and one “dirk knife.” (Most of us in the knife community would use the term “entry-level” as opposed to “extensive” to describe Mr. DeCiccio’s collection.)
It is a felony under Connecticut law § 29-38 for any person to have within a vehicle, among other things, any brass knuckles, police baton or nightstick, dirk knife or any knife, the edged portion of the blade of which is four inches or more in length.
DeCiccio was charged with six counts of violating § 29-38 for each item in the “collection.” He was convicted only for the dirk knife and the baton. The jury found that he was in the process of transporting his possessions from one residence to another and, therefore, an exception in § 29-38 for “a knife, the edged portion of the blade of which is four or more inches in length” applied to the two machetes, the sword, and the brass knuckles-handled knife but not to the baton or dirk described as follows:
The handle is four and one-half inches long and one inch wide and terminates with a two-inch guard. The dagger like blade of the knife, both edges of which are sharpened, is approximately one and one-half inches wide and five and one-half inches long. (Underlining supplied).
DeCiccio was sentenced to three years imprisonment. In other words, it was not a public safety threat – and thus not unlawful – for DeCiccio to have the two machetes, the sword, and the knuckle knife in his vehicle but the dagger and baton presented a threat of such magnitude to send him to prison!
DeCiccio had raised Federal Constitutional issues in his defense and on appeal, which were the subject of the landmark Heller (2008) and McDonald (2010) U.S. Supreme Court cases concerning the Second Amendment. The holding in Heller was that individuals had a Constitutional right to keep and bear “arms in common use.” The McDonald case held this right binding on the states.
The Connecticut Supreme Court observed that daggers – synonymous with dirks – were not “dangerous and unusual weapons” and that knives of a type no more practically dangerous” than other knives in common use:
As to whether dirk knives are ‘dangerous and unusual weapons’; District of Columbia v. Heller, . . . and, therefore, not “arms” within the meaning of the Second Amendment, their more limited lethality relative to other weapons that – under Heller – fall squarely within the protection of the Second Amendment—e.g., handguns—provides strong support for the conclusion that dirk knives also are entitled to protected status. . . .
For these reasons, we agree with the defendant that, under Heller, the dirk knife that he was transporting to his new residence falls within the term “[a]rms” for purposes of the second amendment. (Citation omitted).
The reasoning included the observation that knives of a type not more practically dangerous than other knives in common use should be protected.
While the Court held that this right applied to dirks – including double-edged daggers – it further stated that a “commonsense” view limited the Second Amendment right to one’s home. (Footnote 2). In the DeCiccio case, the Court acquiesced in the limited necessity of moving from one home to another:
Because the existing statutory scheme places an undue burden on the defendant’s right to possess and keep his dirk knife [dagger] and police baton in his home by making it impossible for him to transport those weapons there, that scheme does not pass Constitutional muster as applied to the defendant.
While the DeCiccio case severely limits the carry of double-edged knives, Connecticut law, in general, is quite restrictive regarding the carrying of all types of weapons. The case does unequivocally hold that double-edged knives are not dangerous or unusual. The Giltner case by the Hawaiian Supreme Court recognizes that a double-edged knife can have utilitarian or sporting use in its decision regarding the “Sea Hunter” diving knife.
Soldiers and Marines often select double-edged knives for field use and deployment to war zones. The Gerber Mark II was popular among those individuals deploying to Vietnam. Most persons actually use the knives for utilitarian purposes but are comforted by the fact that the design yields a higher level of affordance for defensive uses.
The A.G. Russell “Sandbox Dagger” is a more recent example of this type. The maker’s online promotional offering includes a video showing the knifepoint digging into what appears to be a hard maple worktable surface. A few seconds later, it is hammered into the same wood and subjected to extreme bending. The knife was obviously designed for a wide range of hard use, including cutting. Such a tool could be useful in many emergency situations.
AKTI has promulgated suggested definitions for various knife types typically restricted eo nominee, or by name. The suggested definition for a dagger is “a knife having a generally straight fixed blade with dual effective cutting edges.” A knife with these features has an extremely broad range of wholesome uses. We urge all in the knife community to avoid the myopic view of the Michigan Supreme Court, as noted above, that double-edged is tantamount to “stabbing instrument.”
1 Other states with no general carry restrictions applicable to daggers include AK, AR, AZ, GA, IN, KY, LA, MN, NV, OH, OK, PA, SC, SD, TN, TX, VT, WI, and WY.
2Whether this “commonsense” view is constitutional will likely be addressed in the upcoming decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc v Bruen.