This article appeared in Knife Magazine in December 2022.
Know Your Knife Laws – The Everyday Knife
By Daniel C. Lawson, Attorney and Knife Expert
This “Know Your Knife Laws” column typically presents an in-depth analysis of laws pertaining to the commerce and carry of knives. Knife laws in this country are rife with troublesome issues which often derive from a sausage-making nature of the legislative process. Legal consequences determine whether a given fixed-blade knife is, or is not, a “Bowie knife” or a “dirk.”
This piece is intended to address the basic questions concerning the routine public carry of pocketknives concealed in one’s pocket or handbag. Millions of us in the knife community carry a “pocketknife” type every day and have done so for a lifetime. If doing so created some threat to an orderly society, evidence of the same would have been obvious.
The American Knife & Tool Institute (AKTI) suggests that the class of pocket knives includes all knives designed to be carried in one’s pocket. If a state law includes the adjectives “common” or “ordinary,” the reasonable interpretation is that it applies to the entire class. Automatic pocketknives, for instance, were common throughout this country when exceptions intended to demarcate the application of concealed carry laws were enacted by states.
Manual Folding Knives
Manually opened folding knife designs are perhaps the most common choice for everyday carry. Many manual pocket knives are designed to be opened conveniently with one hand. The entertainment industry sensationalized the sudden appearance of a blade beginning in the 1950s. Some people erroneously believe that one-hand operability is unlawful. This belief was reinforced by the “gravity knife” prosecutions in New York City, which ended in 2019. Those prosecutions were found to be unconstitutional, and the state law of New York was revised.
No states currently impose legal restrictions based on unassisted, manual, one-hand operability. This feature has been trending for several decades and is quite common. Some erroneously believe otherwise. If the need to use a knife arises when in view of the public, one should keep this in mind and avoid flourishing movements.
A blade that locks in the open position is a highly desirable safety feature. It prevents the blade from inadvertently folding while in use and causing injury to the user’s hand. The California legislature has essentially dismissed this risk. The law of that state provides that any folding or moveable blade knife that locks in the open position is a “dirk” or “dagger” and may not be carried concealed.
Those who choose to carry a manual folding knife should take notice of blade length restrictions in a few states. Rhode Island law prohibits the concealed carry of, among other things, a “knife of any description having a blade of more than three inches in length, measuring from the end of the handle where the blade is attached to the end of the blade.” Delaware law provides that knives “of any sort” are a deadly weapon and may not be concealed but makes an exception for an “ordinary” pocketknife with a blade not more than three inches in length. The word “ordinary” in 11 Del. C. § 222 is evidently intended to distinguish “switchblade knives,” which are strictly prohibited.
Colorado and Nebraska extend the concealed pocketknife blade length limit to 3.5 inches. While both states do allow some limited exceptions, the practical effect is a restriction on the public carry of any pocket knife with a blade length exceeding the arbitrary limit. Missouri law defines an ordinary pocket knife as a folding knife with the length of any blade not exceeding four inches. Such a knife may be lawfully carried concealed.
In Connecticut, it is a felony to publicly carry – open or concealed – or possess any knife with “the edged portion of the blade” exceeding four inches. It is also a felony to have such a knife in one’s motor vehicle, although a few narrow exceptions are provided.
The AKTI suggested definition for an automatic knife is:
A knife with a blade exposed in an automatic way and moved from the closed position to the open position exclusively by potential energy upon release of a restraining mechanism.
Automatic knife prohibition laws often refer to such knives as “switchblade” knives, which is an imprecise and stigmatized label.
As of this writing, a bill (HB 1929) initiated in Pennsylvania by AKTI and its longtime member W.R Case has passed by both legislative chambers and is expected to be signed into law by the Governor. The effect of HB 1929 will be the removal of restrictions regarding the manufacturing, sale, and carry of such knives that have been in effect since 1956. A few states have not yet repealed their respective automatic knife restriction enacted during the “switchblade legislative hysteria” that extended from 1951 through 1959.
The concealed public carry of automatic knives is unlawful in Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Virginia, Washington, and the District of Columbia.1
Concealed carry of automatic knives is unlawful in Illinois unless one holds a valid FOID license.
New Jersey allows the concealed carry of such knives except “under circumstances not manifestly appropriate for such lawful uses as it may have.” This law is absurdly vague and susceptible to inconsistent and arbitrary enforcement. Violation of this law constitutes a felony. AKTI suggests caution with respect to automatic knives in New Jersey.
A few states ostensibly allow the carry of automatic knives but impose a blade length limitation which, in practice, effectively operates as a complete prohibition. Connecticut and Massachusetts allow the carry of automatic knives with blade lengths not longer than 1.5 inches. California allows up to a two-inch blade length. The slip joint “Peanut” pattern, widely recognized as a small light-duty knife, typically features a main blade longer than two inches. Many would consider the Peanut to be more of a special, dressed-up, formal-occasion knife than an everyday carry. Automatic knives with one-and-a-half or two inches are not commonly available.
Vermont law provides a three-inch blade length restriction for automatic knives. The general three-inch blade length restriction in Rhode Island also applies to automatics. Similarly, the three-and-a-half-inch blade length restrictions in Nebraska and Colorado mentioned above apply to all pocket knives.
Manual or Automatic?
Several types of pocket knives in common use remain controversial as to whether they are correctly categorized as manual or automatic. The controversy derives from the one-hand operability stigma discussed above. Knife types included in the group include “gravity knives,” “butterfly knives,” and “assisted opening knives.”
Legislators have often used and applied terms such as “inertia,” “gravity,” and “automatically” imprecisely. Ambitious prosecutors have elastically applied knife statutes. While more than 60,000 gravity knife prosecutions were asserted in New York City during the 2001 to 2018 period, my research has not located a single case involving a knife that could be opened by gravitational pull.
Courts have further comingled the meanings to the point where, for instance, “automatically” was declared to be synonymous with “spontaneously.” See The California Court of Appeals decision in People v. Quattrone, 211 Cal.App.3d 1389, which involved a “butterfly knife,” None of the knives in this category open as a result of a sudden, inner impulse without external stimulus, which is a fair definition of spontaneous.
The Federal Switchblade Act was amended in 2009. AKTI member Columbia River Knife and Tool (CRKT) had received notice that assisted-opening knives, which U.S. Customs had specifically authorized for import, were to be reclassified as paradigm switchblade knives and thus prohibited. AKTI and a coalition of interested parties rallied to effect the change.
The amendment created the “bias toward closure” exception for the broad class of assisted-opening knives under Federal law.2 A few states – notably New York – have ignored the distinction recognized in the amendment. The definition of “switchblade knife under New York state law § 265.00 is:
Switchblade knife means any knife which has a blade which opens automatically by hand pressure applied to a button, spring, or other device in the handle of the knife.
In the case of People v. Berrezueta 104 N.E.3d 726 (2018), the high court of that state upheld a conviction where the evidence showed that there was no button or other device in the handle. It did feature a “flipper,” which was part of the blade. The knife was clearly not within the statutory definition. The court substituted the “if it waddles like a duck” adage for long-established jurisprudential principles. A single justice wrote a convincing dissenting opinion.
AKTI has developed suggested definitions for various terms encountered in knife statutes, including “butterfly knife,” “gravity knife,” and “automatic knife,” as mentioned above. However, states are not required to use the same. Application of the definitions would provide clarity for the knife community and the criminal justice system apparatus—the choice about what type or size of pocket knife should be left to the individual. Numerous factors ranging from practical to whimsical will be involved. Arbitrary dimensional and functional restrictions are unnecessary.
AKTI is the credible and reliable source for knife laws and knife law information. You can Carry With Confidence by reviewing the state knife laws on our website for where you live, work or travel, and following this column in Knife Magazine for a more in-depth understanding of how the laws are understood and enforced.