Quick Legal Facts
Concealment is a factor under California law.
California schools are weapons free zones.
Two inches or more—blade length of illegal switchblade under California law.
Dirk knives and daggers are illegal to carry concealed. Switchblades with a blade 2” or longer are illegal to carry. A wide variety of unusual knives are also illegal to carry. Violation of the carry statute is a felony. Carrying a switchblade may be a misdemeanor (see Discussion for more).
At a Glance:
Right to Bear Arms/2nd Amendment Equivalent:
None: Federalism and McDonald apply U.S. Constitution’s 2nd Amendment to California.
- Pen. Code (CPC) sec. 16470 (Definition of dirk knife or dagger and locked in open position)
- CPC sec. 16590 (Prohibited weapons including knives) KEY STATUTE
- CPC sec 17235 (Definition of switchblade; bias against closure language)
- CPC sec 21590 (Carrying a switchblade is a nuisance)
- CPC sec 21510 (Carrying a switchblade with 2” or more blade is misdemeanor)
- CPC sec. 21310 (Punishment for dirk knife or dagger)
- CPC sec. 20200 (Open carry of “sheathed knives” allowed)
Restricted Knives (possession of which is a felony):
- Air gauge knife (defined in CPC sec. 20310)
- Ballistic knife (defined in CPC sec. 21110)
- Belt buckle knife (defined in CPC sec. 20410)
- Lipstick knife (defined in CPC sec. 20610)
- Writing pen knife (defined in CPC sec. 20910)
- Switchblade knife with blade longer than 2”
- A concealed dirk knife or dagger (fixed blade or locked in open position)
Sheath knives must be open carried, including dirk knives and daggers.
Adoption of Heller:
Applied explicitly to knives, intermediate appellate court only (People v. Mitchell, however see dissent in People v. Pickett)
Yes, Cal. Pen. Code sec. 17235; See also In re: Gilbert R.
Any switchblade knife having a blade more than two (2) inches in length, as well as any of the prohibited items listed above, may not be manufactured, possessed, transferred or sold.
Two inches or more—blade length of illegal switchblade under California law.
California schools are weapons free zones. CPC 626.10 bars knife carry at school or on school grounds.
Section 16590 of the California Penal Code pertains to dirks, daggers, belt buckle knives, sword canes, lipstick knives, knives concealed in pens. However, the section does not cover switchblades.
Law enforcement officers, when authorized, are permitted to carry a variety of bladed weapons that are listed in CPC 16590. The exemption does not extend to fire and EMS personnel.
§17730. Inapplicability of Section 16590
The provisions listed in Section 16590 do not apply to any of the following:
(a) The sale to, possession of, or purchase of any weapon, device, or ammunition, other than a short-barreled rifle or a short-barreled shotgun, by any federal, state, county, city and county, or city agency that is charged with the enforcement of any law for use in the discharge of its official duties.
(b) The possession of any weapon, device, or ammunition, other than a short-barreled rifle or short-barreled shotgun, 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.
(c) Any weapon, device, or ammunition, other than a short-barreled rifle or a short-barreled shotgun, that is sold by, manufactured by, exposed or kept for sale by, possessed by, imported by, or lent by, any person who is in the business of selling weapons, devices, and ammunition listed in Section 16590 solely to the entities referred to in subdivision (a) when engaging in transactions with those entities.
California’s knife laws are in a state of flux, as demonstrated by both People v. Rubalcava (decided under the old prohibited weapons statute) and In re: Luke W. In this case, the court recounts the long and complex history of California’s knife laws. This is not a simple history and it appears that more changes could occur at any time. Originally, the list of banned knives was found at CPC sec. 12020. That statute was replaced with CPC sec. 16590, which contains an exhaustive list of weapons, including all of the banned knife designs, which the legislature has determined are usually used for criminal purposes. People v. Wasley (decided under old version of statute, 12020). Furthermore, this statute has been updated and altered many times, including references to recently added definitions of various kinds of knives in other parts of the penal code. Possession, alone, is all that is required to commit a felony for possession of a “prohibited weapon” though, according to Rubalcava, in the case of dirk knives and daggers, they must also be concealed.
The concealed carry provision is the most often charged knife-related offense in recent years. According to People v. Mitchell, the intent of this law is to prevent people from being surprise attacked by very dangerous stabbing-type knives. Though the statute sounds relatively limited, case law has proven this to be untrue. First, often cases report simply ludicrous claims about how knives are carried. In People v. Castillolopez, for example, the police claimed that the defendant had a counterfeit Swiss Army Knife stored open in his pocket. In Mitchell the police claimed that the defendant had a five-inch dagger with an “exposed” tip stored between his belt and his pants. These types of assertions are commonplace in knife-related case law, despite being hard to fathom as true. Also, the statute’s concealment component is relatively easy for the State to prove. According to Mitchell, the State does not need to prove that a person intended to carry the knife concealed, but simply they were carrying a dirk knife or dagger AND that it was concealed.
There are a few places in California law where there is some confusion.
Switchblades seem to be subject to two different statutes, CPC sec. 21590 and 21510. In CPC sec. 21510 the law bans only switchblades with blades 2” or more. In CPC sec. 21590, the law makes “any switchblade” a nuisance but then references CPC sec. 21510. It’s not clear why there are two statutes covering switchblades, why one makes it a misdemeanor and one makes it a nuisance (which is, itself a misdemeanor), and why one says “any” switchblade and the other specifies a blade length.
Additionally, in CPC sec. 16590, concealed dirk knives or daggers are banned, but CPC sec. 20200 seems to require all sheath knives to be open carried. These two statutes don’t make clear whether other sheath knives, like a Bowie knife, cannot be concealed carried in California. It also doesn’t make clear whether the legislature mistakenly believed that all sheath knives (presumably fixed blades) were dirk knives and daggers, which is obviously untrue. People v. Rubalcava seems to conflate all fixed blades with dirk knives and daggers in a number of different places in the opinion. As such beware of carrying any fixed blade (or “sheath knife”) concealed.
For 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
Updated September 16, 2017, by Anthony Sculimbrene