The United States, as you are doubtless aware, is the most weapons-permissive country on earth when it comes to its citizens owning and carrying arms. Firearms are obviously the divisive and oft-discusses weapon and the star of these arguments, but U.S. knife laws are also a common topic.
While the rule of law might evaporate in a crisis big and nasty enough, you’ll still be living under the law in the meantime, and it won’t do to get yourself targeted by law enforcement for failing to adhere.
There are some knife laws that apply at the federal level and others that apply at the state and local levels. You’ll need to be familiar with both to ensure whatever knife you decide to carry is legal. If you are newly interested in carrying a knife, or just want an overview of general knife laws in the U.S states, you are in the right spot.
In this article, we’ll be taking a helicopter view of what laws you can expect to affect you when carrying a knife in the United States, and at the end you can find a list of links to each state’s detailed knife laws.
Federal vs. State and Local Laws
Just as with guns, you’ll have to contend with both federal, state and local laws when dealing with the use, carry and ownership of knives. Because if a government is not infringing on your rights whenever and wherever it can, it probably isn’t a government!
Luckily, compared to guns, knife ownership and carry is barely regulated at the federal level. While state and sometimes local laws are many and varied, the only piece of federal law that will affect you and you knives at all is the 1958 Federal Switchblade Act.
Even then it only concerns the manufacture and subsequent interstate sale of automatic knives, AKA switchblades as well as their mailing through the spectacularly inefficient and corrupt United States Postal Service.
For clarity, it does not regulate possession of a switchblade in any of the 50 U.S. states at the federal level; plenty of states have their own home-grown laws on automatic knives, and this also turns out to be a fine time to introduce you to an important conceit you will doubtless become very familiar with if you care to deep dive into the legal landscape covering knives in a given state – legal definitions.
Definitions, and then Some
Words mean things. When it comes to legal language, you will always need to review the accompanying definitions for words that have easily understood and totally unambiguous meanings because, in the courtroom, they may mean something else or something completely different from usual!
This is made even worse if a raft of laws don’t include any legal definitions since you’ll be at the mercy of cops’, judges’ and lawyers’ interpretations. Not something you’ll care to gamble your future and life on, trust me.
Even for something as simple as a pocketknife, the term “pocket knife” might be specifically defined as a certain feature set, a knife without a certain feature set, or something else entirely. Or it might have no definition at all!
It is for this reason you’ll always have to be vigilant and excruciatingly detail oriented when it comes to reviewing a state’s knife legislation. A simple misunderstanding could see you draw an entirely erroneous conclusion from what should be simple language.
As you doubtless know already, ignorance is never an excuse for breaking the law, and doubly so for weapons laws, especially in more restrictive states and locales.
Other technical and nomenclature terms immediately understandable to knife aficionados like “dirk,” “dagger,” “stiletto” and “bowie” may have different definitions than what you are expecting, or being named as specifically forbidden designs or styles, which is altogether too common, might not have a definition, meaning you’ll once again be at the mercy of interpretation at trial.
General Concepts to be Aware Of
You’ll at least see consistent themes and areas of note appear regularly in knife laws state to state. These are most often laws concerning style/type, blade length, action, restricted areas, ownership, possession or carry laws, preemption and penalties.
Most states that do have restrictions are concerned with length and possession, i.e. actual carry of the knife, specifically carrying concealed or not, and where you can and cannot carry it. Plenty of states don’t have any restrictions to speak of regarding carry, excepting perhaps a few styles of knives.
Regrettably, quite a few states also regulate knives on a style and length basis, perhaps requiring a citizen to seek and obtain a concealed weapons permit before carrying a “restricted” knife and a few special nanny states rely on nebulously worded laws that are easily contorted to fit the agenda of the arresting officer or the court. You must be especially cautious in such places.
Below you’ll find a brief summation of the items and features of interest you’ll see pop up time and time again as you peruse the knife laws of all 50 states.
Style and/or Type of Knife
The design or type of knife is often a point of regulation for state knife laws, either for possession, carry or both. Quite a few states will regulate folding and fixed blade knives separately, restricting fixed blade knives to a given length or mandating they be openly carried.
Considering the design of knives, dirks, daggers, bowies, stilettos, push daggers, machetes and other “classes” of knives that are designed or suitable for thrusting or powerful slashes will often be described and restricted by name, though many states as mentioned fail to specifically define what those names mean.
Though you might not carry a proper, encyclopedia-perfect stiletto, your knife’s features might, depending on how the proceedings shake out, qualify it as a stiletto.
Does your knife have a pronounced, sharply tapering point? Is it double edged, even if the opposite side of the blade is a false edge? Sounds like a dagger to me!
What else is a bowie if not a knife with a crossguard and clip point? Your pocketknife fits the bill if the state needs it to.
Speaking of pocketknives, one phrase you’ll see endlessly parroted in one form or another is “common folding pocketknife,” “ordinary pocketknife,” or something similar.
What does that phrase mean to you? It probably just means folding, slip joint knife, yes? You got it, whatever other characteristics it has a folding knife is a pocketknife barring it is something really exotic.
Sure, if you wanted to be super conservative, you could say it is a penknife, trapper, sodbuster, or simple hunting knife if you wanted to be cautious.
Well, sorry to disappoint you, but for most of the states a common pocketknife is also completely subject to their whim since they do not care to define it.
Always be sure to check, but barring the presence of any clarifying language or strict definition, your folding knife that looks a hair too “tactical” could be to your detriment, legally.
Of perennial interest to the same busybodies who want to regulate guns into oblivion and have currently clipped the last pair of balls from jolly old England across the pond, blade length is second only to design or type in legislative frequency.
The shorter the knife the better, as some states are concerned, and you’ll see the average in restrictive states hover around 3” or a bit less, regardless of any other excluded criteria.
Blade length is another tricky legal landmine, since states and even localities might measure blade length differently. Some will measure from the part of the handle where the blade connects to the tip.
Others will measure from the beginning of the sharpened edge to the tip. It all depends. More than few cops will fudge this measurement or use various shoddy and dubious methods to measure blade length, like the old lay-it-across-the-palm trick.
Blade length is liable to get you in trouble when you travel into restrictive states or restrictive municipalities and don’t take care to check the local, legal lay of the land. Always remember that length ordinances may be different for fixed blade and folding knives!
A knife’s action used to be a much bigger bone of contention that it is today in 2019, with automatic “switchblade” knives being banned from possession or ownership in not quite half the states and an awful lot of cities.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of the American Knife and Tool Institute, rafts of legislation have been passed at the state level making these knives legal to carry in most places, though restrictions in length still abound.
Also heavily regulated are ballistic knives, which fire the blade as a projectile and gravity knives, which are another nebulously defined item that, supposedly, allows the blade to fall out of the handle under its own weight.
“Huh,” is right; that could describe anything from a butterfly knife or balisong (another knife type formerly restricted heavily) to a simple folding knife that does not have a tight lockup in the closed position.
Assisted opening knives, which have exploded in popularity since the early 2000s, are a “sometimes” action, as thanks to lazily written and non-specific legal language sometimes get lumped into illegality right alongside switchblades and gravity knives.
Again, you must, must take the time to consult the state statutes and read all pertinent sections and definitions before staking your claim on any knife as being legal or okay. If you are ever in doubt, contact your attorney.
Despite any other laws governing legality and mode of carry, most states have at least a cursory list of places that you cannot take a knife of any kind, or knives over a certain length, or knives meeting other criteria.
The most common restricted places are schools (often elementary schools all the way through high school and sometimes college and technical school as well) and any government buildings, things like courthouses, courtrooms, city halls, voting places, assembly meetings, etc. Occasionally you’ll see other named places like bars and such.
Another important fact is to find out if businesses’ placards declaring “no weapons” has force of law or not, and if it does have force of law, what the penalty is.
If you get detected carrying a knife and the penalty is being forced to leave lest you be hit with a trespass warning, which is an entirely different scenario than being zapped with trespassing or some other misdemeanor straight away.
Nearly all states make a clear distinction between ownership and possession of a regulated item, knives in particular. A few particularly onerous and backward states and municipalities make ownership of entire classes of knives forbidden or knives that exceed certain statutory regulations.
In this case, you cannot even have the items at your home or in storage. That’s breaking the law! If you are unfortunate enough to live in one of these tin pot dictatorships, how do those boots taste?
While rarely an issue in most places, as you’ll still be allowed to own a restricted knife, just not carry it, this can become a sticking point in the few where you cannot even be in possession of a banned knife in your own home that is your own property.
On a similar track, some knives that are otherwise banned are allowed to be in your possession on a piece of property you own, like your place of business or on vacant land.
The meat and potatoes of states laws covering knives, and featured this far down on the list since it only applies to knives that are otherwise legal to carry.
The two major factors that states govern regarding the possession of knives is the factor of concealment and whether or not driving your vehicle and having a knife on you is considered under possession in the eyes of the law.
Some states will allow you to carry any damn bladed implement you want if you do so openly. You could have a three foot machete or short sword hanging from your belt so long as you don’t cover it.
Some states don’t care at all what you carry openly or concealed and make no distinction between the two modes so long as the other restrictions on knife length, style, etc. are attended to. Some states will permit more knives or longer lengths, so-called “dangerous weapons” to be carried concealed only if you have a permit. It all depends.
What you should take great care to understand is that “concealed” is another nebulous term, easily abused should some lawman want to stick it to you. Query: is a pocketknife clipped to the inside of your pocket via a visible clip concealed or not?
The knife is visible, certainly via the clip and likely via the upper/back end of the knife handle as well. Or is it concealed since a passerby may not conceivably know it is a knife?
See where this is going? If a knife in an external sheath on your belt were to be a third covered by a shirt or jacket hem is that concealed? In one state, it would be, and subsequently becomes illegal carry of a fixed blade knife.
Some states purposefully write their laws in such a broadly interpretable, hazy way as to make any definitive reading of them impossible.
This is by design, as the less confidence the citizenry (that’s you) has in the meaning of the laws, the less sure they can be they are on the right side of them when performing an action that is regulated by the law.
Tack on some sharp fines or even imprisonment and you have a recipe for quenching the desires of all but the boldest to do the thing so regulated, like carry a simple pocketknife, for instance.
For those who choose to carry on in the face of your legalistic smoke and mirrors, the indistinct wording of the law means that, just like a human being, you can torture it enough to make it say whatever you want!
In places with such wording, you must always err on the side of caution.
Preemption, more completely described as state preemption laws, mean that a state forbids municipalities (cities, counties, etc.) from passing any local laws that more heavily restrict carry of weapons- guns or knives- than the state law proscribes.
Preemption laws are good for you, since they forbid each and every city from enforcing more tedious laws than the state and thus making travel with knives or guns a major headache for the armed citizen.
Quite a few states have preemption laws, but you must be cautious as many of them apply only to firearms, not necessarily to knives and other weapons!
It is entirely possible for your state to enforce preemption of gun laws but leave you to navigate a blizzard of onerous laws as you go from city to city or county to county on your travels.
Also, you should exercise maximum caution in any area which is aggressively anti-weapon and anti-armed citizen; while the state’s preemption laws may swoop in and save you eventually, if you are arrested for weapons charges in one of these places you will be facing expensive legal proceedings no matter what.
Do not forget that police dept’s. are far more likely to be influenced by political agenda than county sheriffs, and even the sheriff’s dept. is far from your friend if the big dogs are sensitive to which way the political wind is blowing. You have been warned.
The penalty schedule and classification of crime (misdemeanor, felony, etc,) of weapons and specifically knife law violations is an important factor when it comes to assessing the suitability of knife carry in a given state.
Not that I am saying any of our readers would willfully break the law, but if it just so happened that you accidentally, unpurposefully, mistakenly, by accident were to carry a verboten knife, it is nice to know you might just be facing a small fine or slap on the wrist instead of a back-breaking five-figures screwjob and a felony charge with attendant prison sentence.
Some states will start violations penalties at $100 or even $50 with no other charge. From there they may ascend according to a certain number of violations, or with the severity of the transgression, e.g. based on the class or length of the knife, concealed carry violations, restricted area violations, etc.
In more permissive states you can generally get away with one or two “minor” charges before you start racking up seriously damaging punishments.
But, in other, non-permissive states, a first and simple violation of carrying a knife just an 1/8” too long and otherwise devoid of any “aggressive” or forbidden features will rack up over $10,000 in fines and a prison sentence of 1-3 years. No joke.
Considering that in these places the accompanying laws are almost always broad, sketchily defined and tough to sort out, you really will be taking your life into your own hands if you choose to carry a knife there.
Knife Laws By State
I’ve overviewed all U.S. states, and almost all have already been published. Just click the state you want to know more about in the table below:
Understanding the major factors provisioned by a state’s knife laws is easy enough; it is unraveling and deciphering a given state’s statutes that is the hard part! The sheer amount of laws on the books in a given state varies greatly, from barely-there laissez-faire regulations to excruciatingly oppressive Big Brother bonanzas.
It is up to you to do the work and put in the reading until you know precisely where your state comes down on knife laws. Make sure you get a head start by searching through our database on all the knife laws of all 50 states in the U.S.!
***DISCLAIMER: This article is not to be treated as legal advice. The author is not an attorney. Neither survivalsullivan.com, its principals, owners, operators, contractors or employees, or the author of this article, claim any criminal or civil liability resulting from injury, death or legal action resulting from the use or misuse of the information contained in this article. Any comprehensive self-defense plan will include preparing for the legal aftermath of any self-defense encounter. The reader should hire and consult with a competent attorney as part of your preparations. ***
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.