This article appeared in Knife Magazine in October 2022.
Know Your Knife Laws – Exceptionality
By Daniel C. Lawson, Attorney and Knife Expert
“Knife laws” that impose restrictions on possession or carry are often expressed as absolute. Terms such as “any person” or “whoever” are used in statutes to designate the class of individuals to which the law will apply.
The Washington State “Dangerous Weapon” statute 9.41.250 purports to apply universally:
(1) Every person who:
(a)Manufactures, sells, or disposes of or possesses any instrument or weapon of the kind usually known as slungshot, sand club, or metal knuckles, or spring blade knife;
(b) Furtively carries with intent to conceal any dagger, dirk, pistol, or other dangerous weapon; is guilty of a gross misdemeanor.
“Spring blade knife,” as statutorily defined, includes any “automatic knife” or “gravity knife” as defined in the AKTI Approved Knife Definitions.
The very next statute in that Chapter of the Washington Revised Code, 9.41.251, provides broad exceptions pertaining to the manufacture, sale, and possession of spring blade knives. It does not, however, actually apply to every person.
The possession and use restrictions do not apply to a “general authority law enforcement officer, firefighter or rescue member, Washington state patrol officer, or military member” while the officer or member on official duty or transporting the knife to or from the place where it is stored when the person is off duty.
The manufacture and sale restrictions exempt automatic knives intended for law enforcement, military, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, and any “commercial distributor” of knives. This exception is worded to allow automatic knives to be manufactured in Washington and sold without restriction out of state.
These exceptions do not extend to the other “instruments” listed in the Dangerous Weapon statute, which cannot lawfully be manufactured or possessed, including metal knuckles and sand clubs.9.41.250.
A reasonable explanation is that Washington legislators recognize the utility of automatic knives. They realize the beneficial uses of such tools in response to emergency and rescue-needed situations. They understand that automatic knives are not always intrinsically dangerous weapons. They simply believe that possession and use of such knives should be exclusive to certain agents of the state and military members.
It is a misdemeanor under Colorado law §18-12-105 for “a person” to carry a concealed “knife,” defined as any dirk, dagger, stiletto, or knife with a blade longer than three and ½ inches. It is not unlawful if the “person” is included within the broad category of peace officers described in Article 2.5 of Title 16 captioned “Peace Officers.” This part of the Colorado Statutes lists numerous categories of public servants in addition to law enforcement officers.
One such peace officer category is that of State student loan investigator per § 16-2.5-127, whose primary function is:
to determine whether applications and other data submitted to the division contain any misrepresentations or false statements made for the purpose of cheating or defrauding and to locate defaulted borrowers.
The routine daily activities of a State student loan investigator do not involve emergency services, rescue operations, fire suppression, or confrontation with violent offenders to a degree any different from that of an individual employed to process automobile financing loans.
Yet, Colorado State student loan investigators are also exempt from §18-12-102,“Possessing a dangerous or illegal weapon.” Accordingly, they may lawfully possess otherwise prohibited dangerous weapons, including a “ballistic knife,” defined as “any knife that has a blade which is forcefully projected from the handle by means of a spring-loaded device or explosive charge,” when acting within the lawful discharge of his duties.
Individuals who are members of the U.S Military are inexplicitly not exempted from the concealed weapon restriction but are exempted from the dangerous weapon prohibition. This leads to the rather incongruous situation in Colorado, where a U.S. military member may not lawfully carry a knife in his pocket if it has a blade three and ¾ of an inch in length but may carry a “ballistic knife.”
A somewhat similar incongruity exists in California, which is the location of a substantial amount of Department of Defense activity. California is also among the five most restrictive states with respect to knife laws. Section 626.10, pertaining to “miscellaneous crimes” and schools, provides that a member of the U.S. Military “engaged in the performance of his or her duties” is exempt from the restriction regarding the possession of a lockable blade folding knife or any knife with a blade length exceeding two and ½ inches from school grounds.
A member of the U. S. Military with any lockable blade folding knife carried in a pocket, briefcase, backpack, or otherwise concealed violates California law § 21310 captioned “Carrying of concealed dirk or dagger; punishment” unless they are on school grounds. Military members in California are not exempt from the myriad restrictions found in Title 3, Division 4 concerning “Knives and Similar Weapons.”
California law does provide extremely broad exemptions for the possession of a wide variety of instruments and knives listed in §16590 – Generally prohibited weapons. Cutting instruments listed in the section include air gauge knives, ballistic knives, belt buckle knives, cane swords, daggers, dirks, lipstick case knives, shuriken (throwing stars), and shobi-zue (defined as a staff, crutch, stick, rod, or pole concealing a knife or blade within it, which may be exposed by a flip of the wrist or by a mechanical action). These items, along with other prohibited weapons such as explosive bullets, cane guns, and zip guns, may be possessed and used pursuant to §17730:
by any peace officer of any federal, state, county, city and county, or city agency that is charged with the enforcement of any law, when the officer is on duty and the use is authorized by the agency and is within the course and scope of the officer’s duties.
Section 17720 exempts the same items “possessed or used during the course of a motion picture, television, or video production or entertainment.”
New York state has an extensive and broad scheme of exceptions to its knife restrictive laws, which is found in McKinney’s Penal Law § 265.20 captioned “Exemptions.” It references 19 separate statutory sections pertaining to weapons – several applicable to knives – and contains a labyrinth of subparts and additional statutory references.
Persons holding a valid fishing, hunting, or fur trapping license are exempted from the automatic knife restrictions in § 265.01 when in pursuit of the licensed activity. They may presumably keep the knives at home at all other times.
Section 265.20 exempts the U.S. Military or “other service of the United States from the restrictions regarding possession and carry of knives including ballistic knives, cane swords, daggers, dirks, ‘switchblade knives,’ machetes, stilettos, and razors.” Persons in the military service of New York are similarly exempted when authorized by the “adjutant general.”
“Police Officers,” as defined in McKinney’s CPL § 1.20, and “Peace Officers,” as defined in McKinney’s CPL § 2.10, are also exempted from the same knife restrictions as U.S. Military members. The sections list more than 20 different categories of police officers and more than 80 categories of peace officers.
The classification of peace officers might be described as a seat-of-the-pants process. For instance, “authorized agents of the municipal directors of weights and measures in the counties of Suffolk, Nassau, and Westchester” are peace officers. Persons involved in the administration of weights and measures in the other 59 counties are not peace officers. “Transportation supervisors in the city of White Plains appointed by the Commissioner of Public Safety in the city of White Plains” are listed as peace officers. Neither a position description for “transportation supervisor” nor an explanation of the unique traffic circumstances in White Plains is provided.
Another remarkable aspect of § 265.20 – the exemption statute – is that the manufacturing and sale prohibitions pertaining to automatic knives and ballistic knives do not apply to the possession of restricted items by persons in the U.S. Military as well as police and peace officers. This exception also applies to the possession of automatic knives by licensed hunters, anglers, and trappers.
The various exceptions or exemptions discussed herein should be carefully considered by those who may be in an affected class.
Persons in the U.S. Military must be aware that duty status and whether the items in question are connected to some official activity or performance are critical factors. Not all states provide exceptions for Military members. Virginia exempts mail carriers but not service members from concealed weapon restrictions.
Individuals in the Military Reserves or National Guard should ascertain how state laws may apply while commuting to and from scheduled duty periods.
Law enforcement exemptions are not universal. Some states, such as Pennsylvania, do not provide an exception for military, law enforcement, or emergency responders relative to its automatic knife prohibition.
We also suggest that exceptions often seem to be the result of an arbitrary or ad hoc approach. The American Knife & Tool Institute (AKTI) does not demean the service of student loan investigators in Colorado or that of weights and measures administrators in selected New York counties. We agree that they should be free to carry a convenient and useful tool (knife) as they go about their duties. If the agenda of exceptions is to arm public servants, then we suggest that it is an extraordinary weaponization of state bureaucracies inimical to the principles upon which this country was founded.
More articles about knife laws are available at www.AKTI.org, along with the knife laws of all fifty states. The American Knife & Tool Institute advocates on behalf of the knife community for reasonable, responsible, and understandable laws. Sign up to receive free email updates on legislative and other knife-related news at www.AKTI.org/membership/grassroots-supporter/.