Legal Considerations

The ability to produce and use tools is what has enabled humans to rise from a very primitive existence and adapt to almost every climate or situation existing on this earth. Granted, we have superior intellectual and reasoning ability. Wit alone, however, did not enable our long-ago ancestors to overcome the lack of fangs, claws, horns, antlers, size, speed, and/or strength possessed by other members of the animal kingdom whom they either preyed upon or competed with for food. Intelligence enabled them to fashion stones, bones, and other material into increasingly efficient tools. Knives, in the nascent form of naturally occurring sharp-edged stones, were undoubtedly among the first tools they ever used. We should consider that without these tools, the dietary and wardrobe options available to our ancestors would have been quite limited. Our "lifestyle" of today is built on this foundation.

Knives are indeed tools. Occasionally, knives are employed as weapons, both defensively and offensively. Unfortunately, knives are also occasionally used to commit crimes. It is the potential that knives can be used criminally and perhaps a misperception as to the frequency of criminal use that has given rise to laws regulating knives in essentially every state.

Our Federal government became involved in firearms regulation in the early part of this century and continues to assume an increasing level of control as to firearms. Given the relatively long period of Federal involvement, the doctrine of Federal preemption, and the fact that firearms laws are for the most part based on purely objective factors, such as barrel length or action type, there is a greater degree of consistency among the laws of the various states as to firearms.

Such is not the case with knives. Laws regarding knives are a hodgepodge of legislative action, some of which dates back to the 1800's.

A handgun "legal" in a given state would in all probability be "legal" in the vast majority of states. The law regarding what a person may or may not do with a legal handgun for example would vary considerably from state to state. The situation is slightly more complex in the case of knives. What constitutes a legal knife varies greatly from state to state and may depend upon objective standards, such as blade length, or more subjective standards, such as the shape or style of the blade or handle. As is the case with firearms, the law of the different states regarding what one may do with a legal knife varies.

Criminal prosecutions based exclusively on the simple possession of an "illegal" knife are rare. At least the cases that become reported seem to involve coalescent criminal activity. As a practical matter, the constitutional prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures protects the otherwise law-abiding citizen who happens to be walking down the street with a pocketknife having a blade one-eighth of an inch over the limit.

This may give rise to a false sense of security based upon the "it can't happen to me ...I'm not a criminal" mentality.

There is also a perception that a violation is generally considered to be a "weapon" violation, which can lead to all sorts of disqualifications, ranging from acquiring or owning firearms to military service, as well as public and/or private sector employment. As an example, in Pennsylvania, it is a misdemeanor to possess a knife or cutting instrument on school property. There is also a law in Pennsylvania which disqualifies persons convicted of any firearms. Persons convicted of any of the listed crimes who own or possess firearms must sell or transfer any and all firearms in his or her possession within a period of sixty (60) days. The list of crimes runs the gamut from murder, rape, kidnapping, arson, robbery that also includes the misdemeanor of possessing a weapon, meaning any knife, on school property. Pennsylvania is not unique in this regard. Similar legislation exists in many other states.

Attend a PTA meeting or a high school football game with a small folding knife in your pocket or handbag, or even a tiny knife on your key chain, and you are subject to the same legal disqualifications meted out to murderers and rapists. If there is even a small knife in your pocket or car when you drive your child to school, or perhaps exercise your right to vote (many jurisdictions' plots are located in school buildings), various rights which you may have thought to be "inalienable" may be in jeopardy.

By the way, if you read the entire text of the Pennsylvania law regarding weapons on school property, it merely advises that a breach of the law is a misdemeanor and makes no mention of the other law listed somewhere else which sets forth these additional and somewhat harsh disqualifications. It should also be observed that in many instances, several different laws of any given state that might apply to the possession of a knife were enacted decades apart. This would have happened quite likely without a full appreciation by the legislators or their constituents (like American Knife and Tool Institute, aka AKTI) as to the implications. Remember that adage about making laws and making sausages are two activities that should not be observed by the consumers or the electorate.

Knife laws vary from state to state, as discussed above. Laws are also changed or amended from time to time. This often occurs in a "knee-jerk" reaction to some problem or event. Also, courts, in the form of opinions addressing a given case or dispute, interpret these laws. Each "interpretation" introduces another change or perhaps refinement to the law. Accordingly, it would be an ongoing task to maintain an up-to-date reference of all American jurisdictions as specifically related to knives.

The individual interested in learning about the laws involving or pertaining to knives in a given state, or perhaps more importantly, in avoiding difficulty with the laws, should turn to the state statutes or legislative enactments, and in particular, those dealing with crimes. You may find that for a given state this would be described or referred to as the Penal Code or Crimes Code. Within this Code, you will likely find laws regarding knives under any of the following headings:

Prohibited Weapons - Typically there will be a statute defining listing various weapons which are prohibited. As to knives, there may be specific size/blade length limitations. Often times there will be prohibitions against "dirks or daggers." Switch-blades or other knives, the blade of which is exposed by gravity or mechanical action, are frequently prohibited.

Possessing Instruments of Crime - This type of law deals with the possession of an instrument not otherwise illegal but possessed under circumstances indicating intent to employ the instrument for criminal purposes. For example, a 12-inch butcher knife would be commonplace and unquestionably legal in a butcher shop or meat packing plant, but might be questionable in the proverbial dark alley at 3:00 o'clock a.m. This type of law is sometimes found under the heading of "inchoate crimes."

Possession of a weapon in a prohibited area - In most states, it is a crime to possess a knife on school grounds. In some instances, exceptions are made for small pocketknives. It is also a crime in many states to possess a weapon to include a knife in a court facility or some other government buildings.

Transactions B - In many states, it is a crime to engage in certain transactions regarding knives and other prohibited weapons or to furnish such items to children or persons known to be incompetent or intemperate.

If you are conducting your research outside of "cyberspace," meaning real books, you should note that there are typically supplements published in paperback format or as "pocket parts" inserted in the rear cover of the hardbound book which contain the current law. Once you locate an applicable code section, be sure to check the "pocket part" for the same section to be sure the law has not changed.

There are also some cities/municipalities that have their own ordinances pertaining to knives. The best place to obtain such information is to contact your local police department and inquire if there are any applicable ordinances regarding the use, possession, carrying, or sale of knives.


Even small knives are forbidden on all commercial airliners and are among the illegal imports that may be confiscated at airports by customs staff even if packed in luggage. The knife laws of different countries vary, but are generally strict in Western countries.

Knife laws in U.S. cities vary tremendously. In Texas, for example, individuals may carry knives openly or concealed so long as they are single-edged, and are not daggers, switchblades, or gravity knives (balisong legality is questionable — there have been convictions). In some other States, fixed-blade knives are banned, open carry is banned, and sometimes concealed carry of anything except pocketknives is banned. Cities have ordinances further restricting these laws; in San Antonio, TX, it is a violation to carry a folding knife having a locking blade. In some metro areas such as Washington, D.C., going into office buildings or museums, or simply loitering, carrying even small 3" folding knives can be problematic. Other restricted areas in the U.S. include court buildings and federal property (the latter of which technically has a limit of 2" for blades).

Carrying knives in public is generally forbidden by law in many countries. Exceptions may be made for hunting knives, and for knives used for work-related purposes (e.g. chef's knives). Automatic knives (switchblades) are almost universally banned from civilian carry if not possession. Balisongs (butterfly knives) are only slightly less stigmatized, and tend to be treated as switchblades by unfriendly law enforcement agencies. Most Western European nations are very unfriendly toward all knives other than small pocket knives and similarly small tools, which are nonetheless not allowed on planes or in certain other venues. Even multitools like the SwissTool, Gerber multitools, and Leatherman multitools are often frowned upon, due to their having relatively large blades and/or locking ability.


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