Quick Legal Facts
It is unlawful to conceal carry a dirk, bowie knife, switchblade knife, ballistic knife, machete, razor, throwing star, oriental dart, or “any weapon of like kind.”
Possession of any knife with the exception of a pocket knife having a folding metal blade of less than three inches is a Class 1 Misdemeanor.
Less than three inches is the maximum length of a folding pocket knife which may be lawfully possessed on school grounds.
At a Glance:
Virginia state knife law imposes few restrictions on non-automatic pocketknives which have a folding metal blade less than three inches in length. Conceal carry restrictions apply to “dirks” and “bowie knives.”
18.2-282.1. Brandishing a machete or other bladed weapon with intent to intimidate, penalty.
18.2-283. Carrying dangerous weapon to place of religious worship.
18.2-283.1. Carrying weapon into courthouse.
18.2-287.01. Carrying weapon in air carrier airport terminal.
18.2-307.1. Definitions (provides definition for “ballistic knife”)
18.2-308. Carrying concealed weapons; exceptions; penalty.
18.2-308.1. Possession of firearm, stun weapon, or other weapon on school property prohibited, penalty.
18.2-308.2. Possession or transportation of firearms, firearms ammunition, stun weapons, explosives, or concealed weapons by convicted felons; penalties; petition for restoration order, when issued
18.2-309. Furnishing certain weapons to minors; penalty.
18.2-311. Prohibiting the selling or having in possession blackjacks, etc.
19.2-386.28. Forfeiture of weapons that are concealed, possessed, transported, or carried in violation of law
Virginia law does not forbid the ownership of any knife types, although “ballistic” and “switchblade” knives are restricted to the point of a practical prohibition. (See discussion below concerning automatic knives.)
Any “dirk, bowie knife, switchblade knife, ballistic knife, machete,” or “razor” may not be carried concealed. A statutory definition is supplied only for “ballistic knife.” The Virginia Supreme Court has adopted dictionary-sourced definitions for “dirk” and “bowie knife.” (See discussion below concerning 18.2-308 – concealed carry – restrictions.)
Restrictions on Sale or Transfer:
It is unlawful per 18.2-311 to sell, barter, give, or furnish a “switchblade knife” or “ballistic knife.” It is a Class 1 Misdemeanor per 18.2-309 to furnish a switchblade knife, dirk, or bowie knife to a minor.
Restrictions on Carry in Specific Locations/Circumstances:
Location-based restrictions exist for schools, places of religious worship, courthouses, and airports.
Preemption of local regulation or statewide uniformity pertaining to knives does not obtain in Virginia except for airports. § 18.2-287.01. Carrying weapon in air carrier airport terminal, provides a uniform statewide rule for airport terminals.
Several statutes impose restrictions applicable to a “switchblade knife.” In the absence of a statutory definition, the Virginia Supreme Court adopted a dictionary definition for such item in the case of Thompson v Commonwealth, 673 S.E.2d 467 (2009):
A “switchblade knife” is “a pocketknife having the blade spring-operated so that pressure on a release catch causes it to fly open.”
This definition would probably exclude knives having a “bias toward closure.” See Understanding Bias Toward Closure and Knife Mechanisms for additional explanation.
Section 18.2-308. Carrying concealed weapons; exceptions provides that it is unlawful for any person to carry “about his person, hidden from common observation” certain cutting instruments including any “switchblade knife.” It further provides:
For the purpose of this section, a weapon shall be deemed to be hidden from common observation when it is observable but is of such deceptive appearance as to disguise the weapon’s true nature.
In the case of Richards v. Commonwealth, 443 S.E. 2d 177 (1994) the court held that a knife “sticking one-half to three-quarters of an inch out of Richards’s right back pants pocket” was not concealed. The knife was inoperable as a “switchblade” and the blade was fixed in the open position. Richards was convicted and pursued an appeal. The prosecution argued unsuccessfully that the knife was either a “spring knife” or a “ballistic knife.” The Court’s decision suggests that since it was not a functioning “switchblade” or “ballistic knife, the appearance was not deceptive. It was not a statutorily restricted knife disguised as an unrestricted type. It was not completely hidden and recognizable as a knife. Accordingly, it was not concealed.
Virginia law, 18.2-311, captioned “Prohibiting the selling or having in possession blackjacks, etc.” prohibits the sale, or possession with the intent to sell, certain cutting instruments:
If any person sells or barters, or exhibits for sale or for barter, or gives or furnishes, or causes to be sold, bartered, given, or furnished, or has in his possession, or under his control, with the intent of selling, bartering, giving or furnishing, any. . . switchblade knife, ballistic knife as defined in § 18.2-307.1, or like weapons, such person is guilty of a Class 4 misdemeanor. The having in one’s possession of any such weapon shall be prima facie evidence. . . of his intent to sell, barter, give or furnish the same. (Underlining supplied for emphasis).
Prima facie evidence is legally sufficient to prove the violation although it may be refuted or rebutted. If the prosecution introduced evidence that a defendant simply possessed a switchblade, he could be convicted of violating 18.2-311 Prohibiting the selling or having in possession blackjacks, etc.
18.2-308 B provides a very limited exemption regarding concealed carry in one’s home:
- This section shall not apply to any person while in his own place of abode or the curtilage thereof.
“Curtilage” is one’s house and the immediately adjoining property. It does not include open fields and is not synonymous with “property.” In Robinson v. Commonwealth 639 S.E. 2d 217 (2007) the Virginia Supreme Court described the extent of curtilage:
The extent of the curtilage is determined by factors that bear upon whether an individual reasonably may expect that the area in question should be treated as the home itself.’. . . This is because the term “curtilage,” as it is used in the legal context, is historically understood to refer to an extension of the home that is so intertwined with the home that the law must provide it the same protection as the home itself.
The combined effect of sections 18.2-308 and 18.2-311 is that such knives cannot be carried outside of one’s home without legal jeopardy. We suggest that automatic knives be possessed only in one’s “place of abode or the curtilage thereof” per 18.2-308.
Knives Restricted Under 18.2-308
Various firearms, cutting instruments, impact, as well as projectile weapons are restricted under 18.2-308. The listed cutting instruments are “dirk, bowie knife, switchblade knife, ballistic knife, machete,” and “razor.” None of the listed types except “ballistic knife” are statutorily defined. The relevant portion of 18.2-308 reads:
If any person carries about his person, hidden from common observation, . . . (ii) any dirk, bowie knife, switchblade knife, ballistic knife, machete . . . razor, or (v) any weapon of like kind as those enumerated in this subsection, he is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.
The Virginia Supreme Court stated definitions for the listed knives in a footnote to the case of Thompson v. Commonwealth 673 S.E.2d 469 (2009) taken from Webster’s Third New International Dictionary:
A “dirk” is “a long straight-bladed dagger or a short sword” . . . A “bowie knife” is “a large hunting knife adapted [especially] for knife-fighting” with a “10 to 15 inch [ ] long” blade. A “switchblade knife” is “a pocketknife having the blade spring-operated so that pressure on a release catch causes it to fly open.” (Citations omitted.)
The reported concealed knife cases in Virginia suggest that prosecutors do not charge defendants with possession of a dirk or bowie. Rather the charge is that the defendant possessed a “weapon of like kind.” The flexibility allowed prosecutors and lower courts to expansively construe “of like kind” very broadly. In the Thompson case, the Court of Appeals upheld a conviction on the basis that a butterfly knife was of like kind to a dirk.
The Supreme Court in Thompson v. Commonwealth observed that the lower court had correctly concluded that a butterfly knife was not one of the enumerated types prohibited by 18.2-308. It also agreed that the butterfly knife was a weapon. It reversed the conviction because the butterfly knife was not “substantially similar” to a dirk or any other of the specifically restricted types. The factors to be considered include a comparison with the dictionary definitions.
Some ten months after the Thompson decision the Virginia Court of Appeals in McMillan v. Commonwealth 686 S.E.2d 525 (2009) reversed a conviction for possession of a weapon of like kind where the defendant admitted that he carried the knife “for protection” and that it was kept in a sheath riveted to the inside of the left or “driver’s door” of his vehicle. The Court stated:
Though McMillan testified that he carried the knife for protection, this statement does not change the physical characteristics of the knife he possessed or its method of operation such that it becomes a weapon . . . “as we explained in Farrakhan, ‘[s]subsequent use or circumstances may not be considered in the definitional analysis of “weapon.” . . . Nor can the purpose for which an individual carries a knife be dispositive as to whether that knife is either “designed for fighting purposes” or “commonly understood” to be a weapon.
The “weapon of like kind” catchall is limited to instances where the instrument in question is:
- Designed for fighting or commonly understood to be a weapon, and
- Substantially similar in comparison to the dictionary sourced definitions recognized by the Virginia Supreme Court in Thompson v. Commonwealth.
There are two aspects applicable to concealment provided by 18.2-308 Carrying concealed weapons; exceptions; penalty.
Firstly, the restricted knives may not be carried “about the person, hidden from common observation. About the person includes carried in a handbag per the case of Schaaf v. Commonwealth 258 S.E.2d 574 (1979). This would include a backpack, briefcase, tote bag, etc. The standard is “prompt and immediate use.”
Secondly, the restricted knife may not be “observable but of such deceptive appearance as to disguise the weapon’s true nature.” A knife extending above a pocket by ½ of an inch is not concealed but would be disguised if it is an automatic type per the Richards v. Commonwealth case discussed above.
Whether a knife is concealed will in almost all instances be a question of fact for the jury or the judge in a non-jury proceeding.
The knives described in the 18.2-308 are location restricted from courthouses (18.2-283.1), airports (18.2-287.01), and schools (18.2-308.1). A “bowie knife” or “dagger may not be carried at a “place of worship while a meeting for religious purposes is being held” without “good and sufficient reason” per 18.2-283.
18.2-308.1. Possession of firearm, stun weapon, or other weapon on school property prohibited; penalty, includes an additional restriction for any knife except a pocketknife have a folding metal blade of less than three inches in length. This section also applies to airports and courthouses.
The combined effect of 18.2-308 and 18.2-308.1 is that it is unlawful to carry openly or concealed any knife except for a pocketknife with a blade less than three inches at schools, courthouses, and airports. Virginia law does not specify how blade length is determined. We recommend one use the AKTI Protocol for Measuring Knife Blade Length which is consistent with a majority of U.S. jurisdictions.
The legislative history of the “brandishing” law indicates it was intended to address “criminal street gang” activity. It was enacted in 2006. There are no reported cases involving § 18.2-282.1 which provides:
It shall be unlawful for any person to point, hold, or brandish a machete or any weapon, with an exposed blade 12 inches or longer, with the intent of intimidating any person or group of persons and in a manner that reasonably demonstrates that intent. This section shall not apply to any person engaged in excusable or justifiable self-defense.
Virginia law provides a similar prohibition for brandishing a firearm.
The exception in § 18.2-308. Carrying concealed weapons; exceptions; penalty for the benefit of collectors requires that one be a “regularly enrolled member” of a “weapon collecting organization.” The exception provides that the section does not apply to:
Any regularly enrolled member of a weapons collecting organization who is at, or going to or from, a bona fide weapons exhibition, provided that the weapons are unloaded and securely wrapped while being transported.
Exemptions are provided for various categories of peace officers and criminal justice officials to the restriction regarding weapons in courthouses. Law enforcement officers on duty are exempt from the air terminal restrictions. Carriers of U.S. Mail on duty are exempt from the restrictions of § 18.2-308. There are no U.S. military exemptions notwithstanding the significant presence in the Commonwealth.
Most violations of knife restrictions are Class 1 Misdemeanors punishable by confinement in jail for not more than one year and /or a fine not to exceed $2,500.
A violation of 18.2-311. Prohibiting the selling or having in possession blackjacks, etc. is a Class 4 Misdemeanor punishable by a fine not to exceed $250.
Updated August 10, 2021, by Daniel C. Lawson