Quick Legal Facts
Concealment is a factor under California law.
California schools are weapons free zones.
Major Cities with Knife Ordinances:
Two inches or more—blade length of illegal switchblade under California law.
At a Glance:
Any fixed blade knife can be a “dirk or dagger” under California law and should be carried openly in a sheath suspended from the waist. Various knives disguised as other objects are prohibited. (See Restricted Knives below.) Any automatic (switchblade) knife, having a blade 2 inches in length or more, should not be carried, possessed in a vehicle or location open to the public, or transferred. Municipal ordinances in Los Angeles and San Francisco are much more restrictive than state law.
§ 16420. Dagger defined
§ 16430. Deadly weapon defined
§ 16470. Dirk defined; dagger defined
§ 16590. Generally prohibited weapon defined
§ 17235. Switchblade knife defined
§ 20200. Knife carried in sheath worn openly deemed not concealed
§ 20810. Undetectable knives; commercial manufacture, import for commercial sale, export or offer for commercial, dealer, wholesaler, or distributor sale; misdemeanor; manufacture of knives or other instruments to include detectable metal
§ 21110. Manufacture, import, sale, supply, or possession of ballistic knife; punishment
§ 21310. Carrying of concealed dirk or dagger; punishment
§ 21510. Possession, carrying, sale, loan or transfer of switchblade knife prohibited
§ 626.10. Bringing or possessing weapons on schoolgrounds; exceptions
§ 171b. Unauthorized possessionof weapons in state or local public building or at public meeting; offense; punishment
§ 171.5. Airports and passenger vessel terminals; prohibited items
§ 171.7. Possession of prohibited items in sterile area of public transit facility; punishment
Air Gauge Knife, Belt Buckle Knife, Lipstick Case Knife, Writing Pen Knife, Undetectable Knife, Shobi-zue (staff or rod containing knife blade), Cane Sword, Ballistic Knife, Switchblade Knife having a blade 2 inches or more in length, Undetectable Knife. Definitions for these items are found in California Penal Part 6, Title 1, Division 2.
It is unlawful to carry concealed upon the person any dirk or dagger which is defined to include essentially any fixed blade knife.
Restrictions on Sale or Transfer:
Restrictions on manufacturing and transfer apply to the items listed above in the “Restricted Knives” section.
Restrictions on Carry in Specific Locations/Circumstances:
Restrictions apply to all knives with the exception of non-locking folding knives with a blade no longer than 2 ½ inches on any public or private school property K through university.
“Any knife with a blade length in excess of four inches, the blade of which is fixed or is capable of being fixed in an unguarded position by the use of one or two hands” is restricted in state or local public buildings or meetings as well as airports and passenger vessel terminals. “Box cutters” are prohibited in airports and passenger vessel terminals. A separate section also prohibits any undetectable knife in the sterile area of any public transit facility.
There is no statewide uniformity. Restrictive ordinances are common in municipalities throughout the state.
The statutory definition at § 17235 for “Switchblade knife” is as follows:
As used in this part, ‘switchblade knife’ means a knife having the appearance of a pocketknife and includes a spring-blade knife, snap-blade knife, gravity knife, or any other similar type knife, the blade or blades of which are two or more inches in length and which can be released automatically by a flick of a button, pressure on the handle, flip of the wrist or other mechanical device, or is released by the weight of the blade or by any type of mechanism whatsoever. ‘Switchblade knife’ does not include a knife that opens with one hand utilizing thumb pressure applied solely to the blade of the knife or a thumb stud attached to the blade, provided that the knife has a detent or other mechanism that provides resistance that must be overcome in opening the blade, or that biases the blade back toward its closed position.
AKTI played a pivotal role in the adaption of the “bias toward closure” element which eliminates from the restriction knives using assisted opening technology. An automatic knife with a blade 2 inches in length is proscribed under the statute. The critical dimension is the total length of the blade including any “unsharpened” portion.
A San Francisco City ordinance prohibits “switchblade” knives of any length.
Dirk and Dagger Defined
Restrictions on the carry of “dirks” and “daggers” go back to 1917. In the 100 plus years since then, an incremental expansion as to what constitutes a dirk or dagger has occurred. The original statute has been amended or modified numerous times by the legislature. In 2014 Kamala Harris, then-Attorney General of California and now a U.S. Senator of that state, urged that an ersatz “Swiss army knife” was a dirk or dagger, although the California Supreme Court rejected her appeal in People v Castillolopez 371 P.3d 216 (2016).
The definition of dirk or dagger at the time of the Castillolopez case remains in effect:
As used in this part, “dirk” or “dagger” means a knife or other instrument with or without a handguard that is capable of ready use as a stabbing weapon that may inflict great bodily injury or death. A nonlocking folding knife, a folding knife that is not prohibited by Section 21510, or a pocketknife is capable of ready use as a stabbing weapon that may inflict great bodily injury or death only if the blade of the knife is exposed and locked into position.
The issue of whether a knife is capable of ready use as a stabbing weapon is a jury question. Numerous appeal-level court opinions affirm or uphold convictions related to knives.
While dirks and daggers may be lawfully carried openly under California State law, a City of Los Angeles ordinance prohibits the concealed carry of any dirk and dagger using the same definition for such knives.
Law Enforcement and Military
An exception to the restriction of weapons on school grounds obtains for law enforcement and military acting in the course of official duty. Law enforcement exceptions for weapon possession in state buildings, airports, and public transit facilities also exist for law enforcement and federal peace officers when in the line of duty.
Violations of the state “switchblade” prohibition, the possession of knives in public transport terminals and airports, and the undetectable knife statute are punishable by up to six months confinement and/or a fine of $1000. Unlawful possession of a dirk or dagger or possession of one of the other various restricted knives is punishable by confinement up to one year. Possession of an unlawful knife on school grounds or in a state or local public building is also punishable by confinement for up to one year.
Updated May 12, 2020, by Daniel C. Lawson
For an additional detailed discussion about legal and illegal knives in California, you are welcome to view this guide developed by a California criminal defense attorney. A Guide to Switchblades, Dirks and Daggers 2nd Edition 2015 How to tell if a knife is “illegal” by Dmitry Stadlin. Our thanks to Mr. Stadlin for including AKTI’s Approved Knife Definitions in his document and allowing our members access to this guide.
Court Case Summaries:
*People v. Castillolopez
3 Cal. 4th 322 (2016)
A Swiss Army style knife is not a locking dagger or dirk knife, even when open, under California law.
People v. Pickett
2013 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 8361 (November 13, 2013)
Second Amendment does not clearly apply to dirk knives and daggers under California law.
People v. Mitchell
209 Cal. App. 1364 (Cal. Ct. App., decided October 11, 2012)
California’s concealed carry knife law does not require an intent to conceal or intent to harm.
In re: Luke W
88 Cal. App. 4th 650
A credit card multi-tool knife is not a concealed dagger or dirk knife in California.
In re: Gilbert R
211 Cal. App. 4th 514 (2012)
Decided: November 12, 2012
Bias towards closure exception makes knife legal.
*People v. Rubalcava
23 Cal. 4th 322 (2000)
The prohibited weapons statute is a general intent crime and does not require an intent to harm.
*California Supreme Court case