This article appeared in Knife Magazine, April 2020.
Know Your Knife Laws – Is There a 50-State Legal Knife?
By Daniel C. Lawson, Attorney and Knife Expert
The question of which knife is legal in all 50 states was recently posed to the American Knife & Tool Institute (AKTI). A good number of people have jobs that require they travel to various states assisting customers. Long-haul truckers travel across state lines as a daily routine, and often find themselves vectored to unforeseen destinations. Many people are simply traveling for recreation or family purposes. AKTI maintains a state knife law resource on its website www.AKTI.org which provides state-specific guidance. Some people may simply want to select a knife for travel purposes that will be “legal” in every state, as well as Washington D.C.
We will answer the question “Is There a 50-State Legal Knife” subject to certain assumptions. First we assume that the person carrying the knife is at least 18 years of age, and neither a convicted felon, nor a non-citizen. We also assume that it will be a folding knife and will be carried concealed in a pocket or handbag. We assume that one is not interested in “pushing the envelope” of legality or conventionality. The goal is to have a useful cutting tool available while traveling.
The answer involves both objective and subjective – or judgment – issues. The length of the blade and how it may be opened are observable, tangible features which are the basis of restriction in many states. In other states, restrictions are based on “weapon” analysis. The subjective element precludes any assurance of legality.
Some states, as well as Washington D.C., restrict knives based on blade length. The shortest statewide restriction is 3 inches. How does one determine blade length? Connecticut and Nevada statutorily provide that blade length is limited to the sharpened edge. Most states have adopted, either by statute or decisional law, that blade length is the distance from the tip of the blade to the handle. An example is the decisional law rule in Texas roughly defined as the “flat-edged part of the knife, which includes the sharpened part of the instrument and any remaining flat-edged part up to, but not including, the handle.” McMurrough v. The State of Texas, 995 S.W. 2d 944 (1999).
AKTI has promulgated a recommended measuring approach which may be found at https://www.akti.org/resources/akti-protocol-for-measuring-knife-blade-length/. We suggest blade length is the shortest straight-line distance between the tip of the blade and the forward-most aspect of the hilt or the handle. One should use the AKTI protocol and eliminate those knives with a blade exceeding 3 inches.
Function and Design-Based Restrictions
Automatic knives, pejoratively labeled as “switchblades,” along with assisted openers, gravity knives, butterfly knives, dirk knives, double-edged knives, undetectable knives, and disguised knives are restricted in at least one state. Eliminate such knives from your consideration.
“Deadly Weapon” Restrictions
The above discussed restrictions are measurable, or objective as opposed to subjective or based on judgment. A significant number of states have a general “deadly weapon”’ prohibition which defines that term in such a way that some knives would be included. For example, the Ohio definition is as follows:
‘Deadly weapon’ means any instrument, device, or thing capable of inflicting death, and designed or specially adapted for use as a weapon, or possessed, carried, or used as a weapon.
Some, but not all, state laws provide an exception for “ordinary” or “common” pocketknives. The Ohio “deadly weapon” statutes contain no such exception. In those states whether any given knife is a deadly weapon will be a matter of judgment, as opposed to some measurable aspect such as blade length or a functional-based restriction such as automatic opening. A jury will be the arbiter of whether it is a “deadly weapon.”
Where subjective or judgmental factors are determinative, the prosecution has the burden to prove that the knife in question is properly classified as a weapon based on statutory criteria.
A few examples may illustrate this concept. The case of Ohio v Anderson, 440 N.E.2d 814 (1981) involved a conviction at the trial level for possession of a “deadly weapon” where defendant possessed a folding knife with a locking, four-inch blade. The knife had the numerals “007” on the side. It could not be easily opened with one hand. At trial, the defendant testified that he carried the knife for use at work in cutting tape and rope on boxes that had to be opened.
The conviction was reversed on appeal due to a lack of evidentiary support for any of the essential elements of the deadly weapon definition. In other words, the conviction was not valid because the prosecution failed to introduce any evidence of weapon orientation. Aside from the “007” markings suggestive of the “license to kill” assigned to the fictional James Bond, there was no evidence that the knife was (i) designed or specially adapted for use as a weapon; or (ii) possessed, carried or used as a weapon as set forth in the Ohio definition set forth above.
The New Mexico concealed deadly weapon statute prohibits the carry of “daggers, bowie knives, poniards, butcher knives, and dirk knives, any other weapons with which dangerous wounds can be inflicted; and all such weapons with which dangerous cuts can be given, or with which dangerous thrusts can be inflicted.” In the case of State v Nick, 218 P.3d 868 (2009), the New Mexico Supreme Court set aside the conviction of a juvenile who possessed a pocketknife on school grounds. The Court observed that a pocket knife clearly is not in the same category with daggers, bowie knives, and poniards. Accordingly, the jury must find the object was possessed with intent to carry it as a weapon and that it was capable of causing the wounds described in the statute based on evidence.
The above examples from Ohio and New Mexico are illustrative of weapon-oriented restrictions. Where such laws exist the focus goes beyond blade length or “how the knife opens.” Factors such as whether the knife is possessed or carried as a weapon become relevant.
The most compelling and irrefutable evidence on the issue of whether a given knife is a weapon would be a statement that it was carried for protection. Many states restrict the carry of concealed weapons. Knives are sometimes said to be man’s oldest tool. It is prudent to avoid mention of defensive contingencies and focus on tool uses if there is occasion to discuss the reason for one’s possession of a knife.
The issue of whether a given knife was designed as a weapon is somewhat simplified by the blade length and function restrictions discussed above, which narrow the selection to manually-opened knives with blades not exceeding 3 inches.
Desirable designs which enhance convenience and safety such as one-hand operability and a locking blade are occasionally mis-characterized as weapon features. Courts have suggested that locking blades and one-hand operability are indicia of weapons. However, an overall non-aggressive appearance may reduce the likelihood that such a knife will be judged to be a weapon.
Blackened blades and OD green, flat dark earth, or camouflage handles are cosmetic aspects that may suggest a “weapon grade” knife. “Fantasy” or un-conventional styles or blade shapes may persuade some jurors to see a weapon as opposed to a tool. Avoid modifications that may suggest a knife has been “adapted” as, or made to be, a more efficient weapon.
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A 50-state legal knife should be something non-threatening and ordinary that is within the objective parameters, blade length and functionality, as discussed above. The traditional slip-joint patterns with multiple blades such as the stockman, cattleman, Barlow, whittler, etc., may be good choices. A locking blade knife of the type sometimes marketed as a “gentleman’s knife” would probably pass without objection or legal problems, as well.
The American Knife & Tool Institute has been working to pass federal legislation to protect knife owners traveling with their knives. The bill is called the “Interstate Transport Act” and you can read more about it at https://www.akti.org/about-the-interstate-transport-act-ita/. You can also follow current knife legislation on the AKTI website at www.AKTI.org and also contribute to the legislative initiatives to clarify or remove knife laws.