Knives! Either pointy and scary or practical and useful, depending on who you ask. And that's reflected in our bizarre hodgepodge of unclearly written knife laws. Let's make them easy to understand.
Above: Alan Ladd plays a heavily fictionalized Jim Bowie in The Iron Mistress.
But Aren't Knives Weapons?
A knife is a tool. As evolved apes with opposable thumbs, we're pretty good at grabbing stuff, pretty good at pushing stuff and even pretty good at twisting or pulling stuff. The thing we aren't really good at is cutting stuff. At least not without putting it in our mouthes, which leads to all sorts of other problems. A knife gives you the ability to cut stuff and carrying one with you gives you that ability in a package that's accessible almost instantly and with a single hand. Carrying one is just an essential part of being a capable human.
But, yes anything can be a weapon. Here's instructions on how to fold a newspaper into a weapon. A ballpoint pen can make a fairly effective impact weapon. But in the hierarchy of stuff you'd grab to fight someone, knives aren't really high up there. Not if you know what you're doing. The trouble is that, while they are capable of inflicting fatal injury, they aren't capable of stopping someone quickly; the fatality tends to come later. That's a bad combination for any weapon, potentially exposing you to much liability and doing so without saving your own butt.
And, there's the trouble with demonizing or attempting to control an object that's hugely commonplace. It might sound sensible to say "No big knives, they're dangerous." But, go into any kitchen in America and you'll find knives with blades of six inches or longer. Are those weapons? Like most of the stuff in your house, they could be. But you also need them in order to eat. But also yeah, it's probably a bad idea to bring that kitchen knife to a public place and wave it around.
Is that kitchen knife more dangerous than something with double edges that's painted black? Not really, but it's arguable that the intent changes between different designs of knives. And intent seems to be a huge part of how knife laws are enforced. If it looks scary, cops and courts maybe predisposed to charge you with stuff for carrying it. And even if that scary looking knife is strictly legal, carrying it may expose you to other "deadly weapon" clauses too.
Knife Law Lingo
To understand all this mumbo jumbo, you've got to learn what a few words and phrases mean.
Carry Law: A carry law dictates what you're allowed to have with you, outside of your home.
Ownership Law: These forbid outright the ownership of something; you can't even have it at home, just for looking at.
Fixed-blade: a knife without a folding mechanism. Your kitchen knives are fixed-blades.
Folding knife: a knife where the blade folds into its handle.
Switchblade: Oh boy, this is where things start to get confusing. Any body that attempts to legislate switch blades has created their own definition of them. And, knife makers have complicated things by creating products designed to barely skirt the law, as it's expressly written. The 1958 Federal Switchblade Act (the only federal knife law) defines them by saying:
"The term 'switchblade knife' means any knife having a blade which opens automatically – (1) by hand pressure applied to a button or other device in the handle of the knife, or (2) by operation of inertia, gravity, or both."
Assisted-Opening Knife: A folding knife which requires you to exert force on the blade in order for it to open, but which 'assists' that opening with a spring or mechanism once you have applied force to the blade. These were specifically exempted from the Switchblade Act in 2009.
Gravity Knife: A folding knife where the blade can "fall" open due to the force of gravity. Largely something that opens up interpretation by cops.
Bowie Knife: A large fixed-blade knife. Jim Bowie made his own design famous and that was specifically designed for fighting, but the term has come to mean any large knife.
Stiletto: A very thin knife that's designed to stab.
Dagger: A knife with sharpened edges on both sides.
Mall Ninja: Someone who thinks scary-looking knives make him tough.
Places You Can Never Carry A Knife
Schools, courts, planes, most federal buildings and similar institutions of state or local government. You aren't supposed to take a knife onto a military installation unless you're a member of the Armed Services.
That last thing is actually a regulation I've violated many times, going to school on a military base and working as a civilian contractor (handyman) across several. See what I mean about confusing?
Knives You Can Take Anywhere Else
If you simply want a knife you can carry anywhere, then look for something that appears utilitarian and harmless in nature — a Swiss Army knife, utility knife or a multi-tool that includes a blade — and stick to blades of 2.5 inches or less.
For some reason, people find knives that lock open to be scarier than knives that don't. This silly because that locking mechanism is a safety mechanism, preventing the blade from being able to close on your hand, but also somewhat understandable as most non-locking blades appear more harmless. Again, think of the prototypical Swiss Army knife.
But remember, knife laws are subject to the interpretation of courts and the police. Brandish even a little Swiss Army knife in a manner that may be construed as threatening and the police may decide to use it as an excuse to murder you. Exactly that just happened a few blocks from my house.
What's Illegal By State Or City (If Significantly Different)
Alabama: Concealed "Bowie" knives (i.e large fixed blades, even kitchen knives), machetes and knives that look like guns. Totally cool to wear any of those on your hip though.
Alaska: Gravity knives and switchblades. And you're supposed to tell a cop you're carrying a knife if he stops you.
Arizona: Anything goes. Tell a cop if you're carrying one.
Arkansas: Please, carry any sort of knife you'd like.
California: No dirks, daggers, stilettos or ballistic knives. No undetectable (ie non-ferrous or hidden in a cane) knives. You're supposed to carry big knives unconcealed.
Los Angeles: Don't carry knives in plain view. Exposed pocket clips are supposedly fine.
Colorado: Don't conceal anything over 3.5 inches. No ballistic knives.
Connecticut: No automatics or stilettos over 1.5 inches. You can't carry anything over 4 inches.
Delaware: The only knives you can conceal are pocket knives of 3 inches or less.
Florida: If you're going to conceal it, make it 4 inches or less.
Georgia: If it's over 5 inches, you need a weapons permit if you want to conceal it.
Hawaii: No balisongs or switchblades. Don't conceal anything that looks dangerous. Real men fight with their fists anyways.
Idaho: Knives are cool here!
Illinois: No switchblades, throwing knives or ballistic knives.
Chicago: Keep it under 2.5 inches.
Indiana: No ninja stars or pizzas at gay weddings.
Iowa: Pretty much anything goes, but you're not supposed to conceal anything over 5 inches or a dagger or switchblade or can knife.
Kansas: No throwing stars or ballistic knives.
Kentucky: Ain't no knife laws here. Except you're ain't supposed to conceal anything scary lookin'
Louisiana: No switchblades.
Maine: Illegal to carry daggers, stilettos or "knives designed for harming others."
Maryland: You can't conceal a throwing star, dirk, switchblade, gravity knife or bowie.
Massachusetts: The few survivors of the last winter encouraged not to carry switchblades, dirks, stilettos, ballistic knives or ones with knuckle guards as they forage for what meager sustenance remains.
Michigan: Anything goes. Don't conceal stilettos though.
Minnesota: Anything goes except for switchblades, don't you know.
Mississippi: You can't own anything scary looking if you're a minor or a convicted felon. And no one's supposed to conceal that scary stuff either.
Missourah: No switchblades.
Montana: Don't conceal anything over 4 inches.
Nebraska: It's illegal for a felon to own a knife, which must make cooking interesting. Anyone else can own and carry whatever they want.
Nevada: No belt buckle knives, which are apparently a thing. Don't try and conceal anything scary.
New Hampshire: Don't tread on me.
New Jersey: Tony and Vinny can own and carry whatever they want except a switchblade.
New Mexico: No switchblades or butterfly knives.
New York: You can't own a knife unless you're a US Citizen. A law currently being violated at every restaurant in the state. And no one's supposed to have anything scary like a switchblade, throwing star or sword.
New York City: No gravity knives. The cops will make this mean anything if they want to. No knives over 4 inches.
North Carolina: Nothing that shoots its blades. Don't conceal carry a butcher knife, a bowie knife or anything scary.
North Dakota: No concealing your machete, switchblade or anything else that's over 5 inches.
Ohio: Anything goes, just don't be a child playing with a toy gun in a park.
Oklahoma: You can't carry anything scary, concealed or open.
Oregon: Believes it violates your 2nd amendment rights to tell you what knives you can have or carry.
Pennsylvania: It's illegal to own a dagger, automatic knife or sword cane. You can't open or conceal anything scary, including hunting knives. I bet a lot of people break that last law pretty constantly.
Rhode Island: Don't conceal anything over 3 inches. And the usual no scary stuff.
South Carolina: Own and carry anything you want, any way you want.
South Dakota: Not sure there's actually laws of any kind here, but you're definitely cool with whatever knife you want.
Tennessee: You can't carry anything over 4 inches.
Texas: No gravity knives.
Utah: Anything goes unless you've been convicted of a variety of loose criminal charges including delinquency, then no knives for you.
Vermont: No switchblades, if they're over 3 inches.
Virginia: It is legal to own any type of knife in Virginia, it is illegal to conceal anything scary looking.
Washington: No switchblades.
West Virginia: No concealing anything scary looking.
Wisconsin: Don't conceal anything scary looking.
Wyoming: Don't conceal anything scary looking.
State laws source: KnifeUp.com
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