Legal to Carry Openly or Concealed
- Any kind of knife except automatics or switchblades. See below.
- Assisted Opening Knives should be OK. See below.
Illegal to Possess
- Any bladed offensive weapon* that exposes the blade automatically by way of switch, button, etc. (*See exceptions below).
Pennsylvania Knife Law Overview
Pennsylvania is a study in contrasts: the law is highly inclusive as to what you can nominally carry, but statutory language is written in such a way as to make prosecution for knife offenses or assumed knife offenses easy.
You can carry in most places according to state law, but the lack of statewide preemption has given rise to some truly appalling local laws in major cities.
The laws are clearly written, and easy enough to understand for even a layman, but only after careful consideration will you understand how badly things can go against you in the wrong circumstances.
Much of the “ground level” legal precedent regarding various types of knives has been set only as a result of many knife-related cases, and the pursuant opinions generated from them are nuanced, fickle and circular to those not read-in to the legal domain.
So you can carry almost any kind of knife you want in PA, with no permit even, but you’ll need to watch your step: enter the wrong municipality, piss off the wrong person, or bump into a cop with a burning desire to collar the innocent and you can find yourself slapped with some serious felony charges.
This is easier said than explained, so let’s crack open this tricky briar patch of a state below.
Relevant Pennsylvania State Statutes Covering Use and Ownership of Knives
- 18 PA. CSA Section 6302
- 18 PA. CSA Section 907
- 18 PA. CSA Section 908
- 18 PA. CSA Section 912
- 18 PA. CSA Section 913
Kicking off this cavalcade of potential legal calamity are the general statutes on possessing a knife, ominously filed under Section 907: Possessing Instruments of Crime. Wow, thanks so much Pennsylvania. This section reads:
§ 907. Possessing instruments of crime.
(a) Criminal instruments generally.–A person commits a misdemeanor of the first degree if he possesses any instrument of crime with intent to employ it criminally.
(b) Possession of weapon.–A person commits a misdemeanor of the first degree if he possesses a firearm or other weapon concealed upon his person with intent to employ it criminally.
(d) Definitions.–As used in this section, the following words and phrases shall have the meanings given to them in this subsection:
“Instrument of crime.” Any of the following:
(1) Anything specially made or specially adapted for criminal use.
(2) Anything used for criminal purposes and possessed by the actor under circumstances not manifestly appropriate for lawful uses it may have.
“Weapon.” Anything readily capable of lethal use and possessed under circumstances not manifestly appropriate for lawful uses which it may have.
The term includes a firearm which is not loaded or lacks a clip or other component to render it immediately operable, and components which can readily be assembled into a weapon.
“Not manifestly appropriate for lawful uses.” What does that even mean?! According to who? Unfortunately, the answer is found in legal precedent and case law, not so much the law as written in the state codes.
While some of the precedent resulting from the pertinent cases has been reasonably determined, some of it has troubling implications. We’ll get to that a little later.
Pennsylvania does ban some types of knives. The only knives explicitly named by type as forbidden to possess outside of a collector context are automatic knives, a.k.a. switchblades, and knives designed for “the infliction of bodily injury with no common lawful purpose.” Here we go again, with the sweepingly obtuse statements about the design, purpose, and constructive use of a tool.
To expand on the switchblade prohibition, the law specifically mentions several types of knives that are illegal if they are also switchblades, but if they are not, they are otherwise legal to possess. It is common misconception to believe otherwise, but Section 908 is very clear:
§ 908. Prohibited offensive weapons.
(a) Offense defined.–A person commits a misdemeanor of the first degree if, except as authorized by law, he makes repairs, sells, or otherwise deals in, uses, or possesses any offensive weapon.
(1) It is a defense under this section for the defendant to prove by a preponderance of evidence that he possessed or dealt with the weapon solely as a curio or in a dramatic performance, or that, with the exception of a bomb, grenade or incendiary device, he complied with the National Firearms Act (26 U.S.C. § 5801 et seq.), or that he possessed it briefly in consequence of having found it or taken it from an aggressor, or under circumstances similarly negativing any intent or likelihood that the weapon would be used unlawfully.
(2) This section does not apply to police forensic firearms experts or police forensic firearms laboratories. Also exempt from this section are forensic firearms experts or forensic firearms laboratories operating in the ordinary course of business and engaged in lawful operation who notify in writing, on an annual basis, the chief or head of any police force or police department of a city, and, elsewhere, the sheriff of a county in which they are located, of the possession, type and use of offensive weapons.
(3) This section shall not apply to any person who makes, repairs, sells or otherwise deals in, uses or possesses any firearm for purposes not prohibited by the laws of this Commonwealth.
(c) Definitions.–As used in this section, the following words and phrases shall have the meanings given to them in this subsection:
“Firearm.” Any weapon which is designed to or may readily be converted to expel any projectile by the action of an explosive or the frame or receiver of any such weapon.
“Offensive weapons.” Any bomb, grenade, machine gun, sawed-off shotgun with a barrel less than 18 inches, firearm specially made or specially adapted for concealment or silent discharge, any blackjack, sandbag, metal knuckles, dagger, knife, razor or cutting instrument, the blade of which is exposed in an automatic way by switch, push-button, spring mechanism, or otherwise, any stun gun, stun baton, taser or other electronic or electric weapon or other implement for the infliction of serious bodily injury which serves no common lawful purpose.
Read the preceding section carefully! Part (a) interprets the crime of possession of an offensive weapon in the broadest possible terms. What is an offensive weapon? In part (c), an offensive weapon is defined as any automatic knife of any description.
This is the part that so many otherwise well-informed knife owners malf-up in PA. The section does not say any dagger, knife, razor, cutting instrument and switchblade is/are illegal, is clearly qualifies that any dagger, knife, razor, cutting instrument are illegal if they are also a switchblade. Don’t let that part fool you.
The only exception to possession that applies to the common man is the part in b. (1), which states you might possess one in a collector context, i.e. at home, under glass, on the wallboard, etc., or came to possess it incidentally under extenuating circumstances that “negativing (sic) any intent or likelihood that the weapon would be used unlawfully.
Other than those specific situations, automatic knives are out.
The blade-savvy among you probably though at once about your common assisted opening knife upon reading “spring mechanism” in the definitions section above. Spring assisted paints with a pretty broad brush, eh? Yes, yes it does. Is your spring assisted knife legal to carry about in PA? Probably.
Yes, probably. Probably is the best I can do. Here is our first major bit of legal precedent resulting from a trial. Reference specifically the case of Commonwealth v. Ashford (1979).
The Ashford case ruled that while the defendant had what would be commonly called a “gravity knife” that opened “automatically” with a flick of the wrist and thus qualified as an offensive weapon, sending the defendant to prison and then saw him released later on appeal.
The appeal was won on the fine-print meaning of “automatic,” and specifically whether or not being able to be opened by a flick of the wrist constituted automatic opening. Yes, folks, your fate could very well be decided by this type of talk.
In the end, the defense successfully argued that the term automatic only applied in the context with which it was written in the relevant section: exposed in an automatic way via a switch, push-button, spring mechanism, or otherwise.
Now, that is hardly reassuring in the case of spring-assisted knives, the operating clause “by itself” should inure a commonly encountered spring assisted pocketknife from falling into this category, since you have to manually begin the opening process by deliberate pressure from your finger against the locking mechanism holding the knife closed, as opposed to a triggering mechanism ready to “fire” the knife open.
Again, I am not a lawyer. I am definitely not your lawyer. This article is not legal advice. Carry an assisted opening knife in PA at your own peril. Getting busted for violating any part of Section 908 can score you 5 years in prison on a felony charge, and a fine of up to $10,000 frickin’ dollars!
In PA, you cannot have a knife, any knife, on the grounds of a public or private school or any court facility. Section 912 explains thusly:
§ 912. Possession of weapon on school property.
(a) Definition.–Notwithstanding the definition of “weapon” in section 907 (relating to possessing instruments of crime), “weapon” for purposes of this section shall include but not be limited to any knife, cutting instrument, cutting tool, nun-chuck stick, firearm, shotgun, rifle and any other tool, instrument or implement capable of inflicting serious bodily injury.
(b) Offense defined.–A person commits a misdemeanor of the first degree if he possesses a weapon in the buildings of, on the grounds of, or in any conveyance providing transportation to or from any elementary or secondary publicly-funded educational institution, any elementary or secondary private school licensed by the Department of Education or any elementary or secondary parochial school.
(c) Defense.–It shall be a defense that the weapon is possessed and used in conjunction with a lawful supervised school activity or course or is possessed for other lawful purpose.
As is common these, days, the law makes it clear that the school grounds and buses (“conveyances”) are also off-limits. So too are court facilities of all kinds, as explained in Section 913:
§ 913. Possession of firearm or other dangerous weapon in court facility.
(a) Offense defined.–A person commits an offense if he:
(1) knowingly possesses a firearm or other dangerous weapon in a court facility or knowingly causes a firearm or other dangerous weapon to be present in a court facility; or
(2) knowingly possesses a firearm or other dangerous weapon in a court facility with the intent that the firearm or other dangerous weapon be used in the commission of a crime or knowingly causes a firearm or other dangerous weapon to be present in a court facility with the intent that the firearm or other dangerous weapon be used in the commission of a crime.
(1) Except as otherwise provided in paragraph (3), an offense under subsection (a)(1) is a misdemeanor of the third degree.
(2) An offense under subsection (a)(2) is a misdemeanor of the first degree.
(3) An offense under subsection (a)(1) is a summary offense if the person was carrying a firearm under section 6106(b) (relating to firearms not to be carried without a license) or 6109 (relating to licenses) and failed to check the firearm under subsection (e) prior to entering the court facility.
(f) Definitions.–As used in this section, the following words and phrases shall have the meanings given to them in this subsection:
“Court facility.” The courtroom of a court of record; a courtroom of a community court; the courtroom of a magisterial district judge; a courtroom of the Philadelphia Municipal Court; a courtroom of the Pittsburgh Magistrates Court; a courtroom of the Traffic Court of Philadelphia; judge’s chambers; witness rooms; jury deliberation rooms; attorney conference rooms; prisoner holding cells; offices of court clerks, the district attorney, the sheriff and probation and parole officers; and any adjoining corridors.
“Dangerous weapon.” A bomb, any explosive or incendiary device or material when possessed with intent to use or to provide such material to commit any offense, graded as a misdemeanor of the third degree or higher, grenade, blackjack, sandbag, metal knuckles, dagger, knife (the blade of which is exposed in an automatic way by switch, push-button, spring mechanism or otherwise) or other implement for the infliction of serious bodily injury which serves no common lawful purpose.
So once more for clarity: no knives, none of the time, in any court facility or school.
There is no statewide preemption in Pennsylvania. This has given rise in some cities, specifically Philadelphia, to some of the most draconian knife laws in the nation, specifically the now-infamous Code 10-820 which covers cutting weapons in public places, or rather why you had better not-damned-ever be caught with a cutting weapon outside your home if you know what is good for you.
Bottom line up-front: you are completely barred from carrying a knife, any knife, any knife whatsoever, while within the city and incorporated area of Philadelphia. I kid you not. I know this is a city law, not a state law, per se, but this is egregious enough I am using my authorial fiat to mention it here.
Philly’s Code 10-820 reads:
10-820. Cutting Weapons in Public Places
(1) Definition. “Cutting Weapon.” Any knife or other cutting instrument which can be used as a weapon that has a cutting edge similar to that of a knife. No tool or instrument commonly or ordinarily used in a trade, profession or calling shall be considered a cutting weapon while actually being used in the active exercise of that trade, profession or calling.
(2) Prohibited Conduct. No person shall use or possess any cutting weapon upon the public streets or upon any public property at any time.
(a) Exception: This restriction shall not apply to the use and possession of cutting tools by emergency personnel of the Philadelphia Fire Department, whether on or off duty.
(3) Penalty. The penalty for violation of this Section shall be a fine of not less than three hundred (300) dollars and imprisonment of not less than ninety days.
You read it right: you may possess no cutting weapon for any reason at any time in any public place for any reason. The end. Well, unless you are a brick layer with a mortar knife actually laying mortar, I suppose, and even then you had better toss that thing over a fence when you are done with the job.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of any given city’s or municipality’s laws covering the use and carry of knives. It is up to you to do your homework and know, quite literally, what you are walking in to.
Pennsylvania’s knife laws appear appealing, at first glance: almost no restrictions on type and permitless carry of said variety. But upon closer inspection you’ll see that you will be balanced on the edge waiting for some minor transgression to potentially snare you if you happen to have a knife on you at the time.
Take care to do your homework on all local laws, and err on the side of mundane knives in this state.
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.