Numerous laws exist in the United States of America which provide that it is a crime to possess certain types of knives. These laws often provide that the crime has been committed upon the mere possession of a knife of the prohibited type, and no proof of criminal intent or incipient crime is required. Other prohibitions as to knives are typically based on blade length and/or mechanical movement of the blade (for example, a switchblade).
It is the position of AKTI that knives are inanimate objects, and remain so regardless of various characteristics, such as length of blade, shape or style, the presence or absence of a hand guard, the label or name that has been applied to the knife, etc. There are no “good knives;” there are no “bad knives.”
This concept, (that it is the criminal, and not the tool, that causes the crime), is long established and well recognized in the history of our law and culture. For instance, in the Torah it is stated:
“The sword is not the cause of murder, and there is no sin upon him who made it.” (Rambam, Commentary on Beresheis 4:23.)
The labels of very commonly prohibited styles or types of knives, such as “dirk,” “dagger” or “stiletto,” had meaning several hundred years ago. But the historic distinctions have become largely meaningless due to, among other factors, advances in metals technology; developments in weapons technology; and other cultural changes.
For instance, a style of knife, which came to be known as the “stiletto,” was developed approximately 500 years ago. The name “stiletto” derives from the Latin word stylus. (1) These knives featured a relatively long blade in comparison to the triangular or rectangular cross section of the blade which tapered to a point. Although these knives were made of iron or steel, the latter being a derivative of iron, metals technology was in a rather primitive state in those times. The triangular, or occasionally rectangular, cross section was necessary to give the blade or stylus strength or rigidity.
A stiletto did not have a cutting edge. (2) Rather, a stiletto was intended purely as a thrusting or stabbing instrument. The edge of a stiletto blade was not suitable for slashing or cutting, although the tip might be capable of inflicting a shallow wound if used in a raking manner.
The objective of the stiletto was to provide a weapon that could exploit the openings or interstices of armor plate, or perhaps pierce body armor composed of layers of leather and/or chain mail. A stiletto was a pointer that could be used to stab. The stiletto was often used as a companion to the sword, with the stiletto being held in the non-dominant (typically the left) hand. The stiletto was fitted with a cross guard so that it could be used to parry the opponent’s sword. One could stab a watermelon with a stiletto and easily push the blade completely through the mid-section of the fruit. However, one could not slice a watermelon with a stiletto.
Advances in metallurgy have made possible relatively flat-bladed, but equally strong, “kitchen knives” that can accomplish the same offensive purpose of the stiletto. A knife that we would now use to slice sections of a watermelon, and which would be found in the typical kitchen, would also be suitable for thrusting through the melon. Similarly, a modern fisherman’s filet knife would also be effective for inflicting a stabbing wound, perhaps through 16th century body armor. These typical, everyday kitchen knives and sportsmen’s knives were not designed to be weapons, despite the fact that they could be readily used as such and still be useful for everyday common and lawful purposes.
Over the years, there has been a tendency to apply the label “stiletto” to knives with a relatively flat or shallow wedge-shaped cross section, and which would have a sharpened cutting edge capable of being used for slicing. The label “stiletto” has also been applied to a type or style of woman’s shoe. A large segment of the population is more likely to associate stiletto with a type of woman’s footwear than as a type of weapon. Moreover, a very small percentage of the population can be expected to have any appreciation for the type of weapon which came to be known in 16th century Italy as the stiletto.
In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees an individual right rather than a collective or militia-only right. (3) In other words, individuals or ordinary citizens have the right to keep and bear arms. Heller also established that for purposes of the Second Amendment arms was not confined to “firearms” but rather within the common 18th century understanding of that word, “anything that a man wears for his defense, or takes into his hands or useth in wrath to cast at or strike another.”
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the provisions of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution are incorporated into the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and apply to state and local governments as well. (4) In other words, the ability of state and/or local governments to infringe or restrict the possession and carrying of arms, which includes knives, is also limited by the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The United States Constitution provides, and has been interpreted to require, that laws must not be so vague that persons of common intelligence must necessarily guess at their meaning and might differ as to their application. (5)
Vague laws fail to provide persons targeted by the law or statute with guidance so that they may know exactly what conduct is prohibited and so that they may adjust, or act, accordingly. Moreover, vague laws, by failing to provide explicit standards for those who apply them, “impermissibly delegate basic policy matters to policemen, judges, and juries for resolution on an ad hoc and subjective basis, with the attendant dangers of arbitrary and discriminatory application.” (6)
A vague law is especially problematic where “the uncertainty induced by the statute threatens to inhibit the exercise of constitutionally protected rights.” (7) The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution creates a constitutional right to keep and bear arms, which includes arms in the classic traditional sense, meaning weapons, along with a subset of arms referred to as “firearms.”
A common pattern in knife legislation has been to prohibit the carrying of certain specified types of knives or weapons, such as a “stiletto” or “dagger,” without a definition of the prohibited type. In a world or culture where the word “stiletto” has so substantially deviated from its original meaning, there is too much potential that a criminal conviction for possessing a “stiletto” could be the result of an arbitrary and/or discriminatory application or process of law. An otherwise law-abiding citizen should not be adjudged a criminal simply because what may once have been a commonly recognized label is now widely misunderstood. Similarly, an otherwise law-abiding citizen should not be exposed to arbitrary or discriminatory action by law enforcement who may be applying an expansive and very flexible definition of what constitutes stiletto or dagger.
AKTI suggests that law-abiding citizens should be able to carry knives and cutting tools without arbitrary and ineffective restrictions as to blade shape, style, length or other such characteristics. Although it may be prudent to prohibit weapons of any type from being introduced into certain settings such as court facilities.
AKTI further suggests that to the extent there are existing laws which prohibit the possession or carrying of certain types of knives, these laws must be construed narrowly and with deference to the United States Constitutional requirement of due process, as well as the right reserved to the citizens by the United States Constitution and the Constitutions of various states to keep and bear arms.
AKTI encourages those involved in law enforcement and the administration of criminal justice to be guided by these definitions. People in these roles typically take an oath to uphold the United States, as well as the applicable State Constitution.
It must be noted that although these definitions are approved by AKTI, AKTI cannot require any particular officer or court to observe them. Accordingly, AKTI cannot be responsible for any adverse consequences deriving from the misapplication or failure to apply these recommended definitions.
Various laws concerning knives involve a blade length. However, there is an extremely wide variety of blade shapes and handle shapes. In the absence of an objective and standardized method for determining blade length, there is the possibility of inconsistent enforcement. AKTIhas developed a Protocol for Measuring Knife Blade Length available on this website.