Washington D.C. Knife Laws: What You Need to Know

The Essentials

Legal to Carry Openly

  • Any knife with a “utilitarian purpose” that is not a switchblade; exercise caution if carrying knife openly

Legal to Carry Concealed

  • Any knife that is not a switchblade, knuckle-knife or deadly/dangerous weapon; see below

Illegal Knives

  • Switchblades
  • Knuckle-knives

Washington D.C. Knife Law Overview

Washington D.C. has its own local laws governing knives, even though it is a federal district. Since it has “home rule” and all the attendant legislative powers that entails, D.C. has since installed its own laws and prohibitions covering all kinds of things.

Considering its importance as our nation’s capitol and seat of the President of the United States, weapons are not the least among these statutes.

What is surprising is that Washington D.C. is not as restrictive when it comes to knives as you might be thinking.

Certainly, it is not as fancy-free as Alaska or Arizona, but it is entirely within citizen’s rights to carry a common pocketknife, though they will have to contend with a bevy of carry-restricted locations in and around Capitol Hill.

We’ll get the facts on the issue and look at the specific statutes below.

Relevant Washington D.C. State Statutes Covering Use and Ownership of Knives

  • 22-4501 – Definitions
  • 22-4504 – Carrying concealed weapons
  • 22-4505 – Exceptions
  • 22-4514 – Possession of certain dangerous weapons
  • 22-4515 – Penalties

We’ll begin at the beginning, with definitions. I always remind readers and anyone who is going to plumb the depths of any state or district’s legal statutes to start with the definitions.

Whether or not a legal code relies on entirely common and usual interpretations of words, or likes to get sneaky and tack on additional and often burdensome or unusual meanings to everyday definitions is a major clue into how likely they are to treat you equitably, and also obviously has a major influence on what the laws actually mean! Washington D.C.s definitions covering weapons and other terms in the Chapter are found in 22-4501:

22–4501. Definitions

(3) “Knuckles” means an object, whether made of metal, wood, plastic, or other similarly durable material that is constructed of one piece, the outside part of which is designed to fit over and cover the fingers on a hand and the inside part of which is designed to be gripped by the fist.

(6A) “Place of business” shall have the same meaning as provided in § 7-2501.01(12A).

(7) “Playground” means any facility intended for recreation, open to the public, and with any portion of the facility that contains one or more separate apparatus intended for the recreation of children, including, but not limited to, sliding boards, swingsets, and teeterboards.

(9) “Sell” and “purchase” and the various derivatives of such words shall be construed to include letting on hire, giving, lending, borrowing, and otherwise transferring.

Knuckles is passingly relevant here since any kind of knuckle weapon is illegal in the District of Columbia, this de facto makes knives with integrated handguards or knuckledusters illegal as well. What definitions we do get on knives are found later in the statutes.

Carrying of concealed weapons, including knives, is broadly covered in 22-4504:

22–4504. Carrying concealed weapons; possession of weapons during commission of crime of violence; penalty.

(a) No person shall carry within the District of Columbia either openly or concealed on or about their person, a pistol, without a license issued pursuant to District of Columbia law, or any deadly or dangerous weapon. Whoever violates this section shall be punished as provided in § 22-4515, except that:

(1) A person who violates this section by carrying a pistol, without a license issued pursuant to District of Columbia law, or any deadly or dangerous weapon, in a place other than the person’s dwelling place, place of business, or on other land possessed by the person, shall be fined not more than the amount set forth in § 22-3571.01 or imprisoned for not more than 5 years, or both; or

(2) If the violation of this section occurs after a person has been convicted in the District of Columbia of a violation of this section or of a felony, either in the District of Columbia or another jurisdiction, the person shall be fined not more than the amount set forth in § 22-3571.01 or imprisoned for not more than 10 years, or both.

(a-1) Except as otherwise permitted by law, no person shall carry within the District of Columbia a rifle or shotgun. A person who violates this subsection shall be subject to the criminal penalties set forth in subsection (a)(1) and (2) of this section.

(b) No person shall within the District of Columbia possess a pistol, machine gun, shotgun, rifle, or any other firearm or imitation firearm while committing a crime of violence or dangerous crime as defined in § 22-4501. Upon conviction of a violation of this subsection, the person may be sentenced to imprisonment for a term not to exceed 15 years and shall be sentenced to imprisonment for a mandatory-minimum term of not less than 5 years and shall not be released on parole, or granted probation or suspension of sentence, prior to serving the mandatory-minimum sentence.

(c) In addition to any other penalty provided under this section, a person may be fined an amount not more than the amount set forth in § 22-3571.01.

As you can see from the passage above, violating the concealed weapons statutes in D.C. is extremely painful: with no prior history, you can get up to five years in prison and substantial fines.

Should you have a prior felony conviction on your record, you’ll be put in the slammer for up to a decade. You can ill afford any mistake when it comes to carrying in Washington D.C.!

Of most practical concern is section (a) and (a)(1): you can carry no dangerous or deadly weapon in the District except in your home or your place of business.

What constitutes a dangerous weapon? We’ll get to that in the next section. Suffice to say that you can carry an ordinary pocketknife. More on that in just a minute.

Before we leave this section, take care to note the exact wording of (a) and (a)(1). When it mentions carry of a weapon with a permit, it only makes the allowance for pistols, not knives! That phrasing and grammar can get you, so pay attention to precisely what the statutes say!

There is more to be said about weapons and the possession thereof in the statutes. See Section 22-4514:

22–4514. Possession of certain dangerous weapons prohibited; exceptions.

(a) No person shall within the District of Columbia possess any machine gun, sawed-off shotgun, knuckles, or any instrument or weapon of the kind commonly known as a blackjack, slungshot, sand club, sandbag, switchblade knife, nor any instrument, attachment, or appliance for causing the firing of any firearm to be silent or intended to lessen or muffle the noise of the firing of any firearms; provided, however, that machine guns, or sawed-off shotgun, knuckles, and blackjacks may be possessed by the members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corps of the United States, the National Guard, or Organized Reserves when on duty, the Post Office Department or its employees when on duty, marshals, sheriffs, prison or jail wardens, or their deputies, policemen, or other duly-appointed law enforcement officers, including any designated civilian employee of the Metropolitan Police Department, or officers or employees of the United States duly authorized to carry such weapons, banking institutions, public carriers who are engaged in the business of transporting mail, money, securities, or other valuables, wholesale dealers and retail dealers licensed under § 22-4510.

(b) No person shall within the District of Columbia possess, with intent to use unlawfully against another, an imitation pistol, or a dagger, dirk, razor, stiletto, or knife with a blade longer than 3 inches, or other dangerous weapon.

(c) Whoever violates this section shall be punished as provided in § 22-4515 unless the violation occurs after such person has been convicted in the District of Columbia of a violation of this section, or of a felony, either in the District of Columbia or in another jurisdiction, in which case such person shall be imprisoned for not more than 10 years.

(d) In addition to any other penalty provided under this section, a person may be fined an amount not more than the amount set forth in § 22-3571.01.

According to the above, you can never possess any kind of switchblade in D.C., but you can possess a dagger, dirk, razor, stiletto or knife with a blade longer than 3” so long as you do not plan to use it unlawfully.

Now, this is tricky because many, ah, liberal areas like to prosecute possession as defacto evidence of malevolent intent. I’m not saying this will happen to you in D.C., if you carry a 5” bladed dagger, but it is a possibility.

The conservative play is to carry a knife with a blade well under 3” no matter how you measure it. The more the knife looks like a common, ordinary, “non-tactical” blade the better. Even so, keep it out of sight, and do not under any conditions draw attention to it.

The list of persons exempted to 22-4504 is below, helpfully in 22-4505:

§ 22–4505. Exceptions to § 22-4504.

(a) The provisions of §§ 22-4504(a) and 22-4504(a-1) shall not apply to:

(1) Marshals, sheriffs, prison or jail wardens, or their deputies, policemen or other duly appointed law enforcement officers, including special agents of the Office of Tax and Revenue, authorized in writing by the Deputy Chief Financial Officer for the Office of Tax and Revenue to carry a firearm while engaged in the performance of their official duties, and criminal investigators of the Office of the Inspector General, designated in writing by the Inspector General, while engaged in the performance of their official duties;

(2) Special police officers and campus police officers who carry a firearm in accordance with D.C. Official Code § 5-129.02, and rules promulgated pursuant to that section;

(3) Members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corps of the United States or of the National Guard or Organized Reserves when on duty, or to the regularly enrolled members of any organization duly authorized to purchase or receive such weapons from the United States; provided, that such members are at or are going to or from their places of assembly or target practice;

(4) Officers or employees of the United States duly authorized to carry a concealed pistol;

(5) Any person engaged in the business of manufacturing, repairing, or dealing in firearms, or the agent or representative of any such person having in his or her possession, using, or carrying a pistol in the usual or ordinary course of such business; and

(6) Any person while carrying a pistol, transported in accordance with § 22-4504.02, from the place of purchase to his or her home or place of business or to a place of repair or back to his or her home or place of business or in moving goods from one place of abode or business to another, or to or from any lawful recreational firearm-related activity.

(b) The provisions of § 22-4504(a) with respect to pistols shall not apply to a police officer who has retired from the Metropolitan Police Department, if the police officer has registered a pistol and it is concealed on or about the police officer.

(c) For the purposes of subsection (a)(6) of this section, the term “recreational firearm-related activity” includes a firearms training and safety class.

No-Go Zones

Schools and zones of recreation, as well as any area or property under the control of the District. Private persons can prohibit the possession of firearms on their properties.

The statute for “gun-free” schools is 22-4502.01, and while it does not mention knives or other weapons per se, you heard it here first, reader: you are a fool to carry a knife into those places.

22–4503.02. Prohibition of firearms from public or private property.

(a) The District of Columbia may prohibit or restrict the possession of firearms on its property and any property under its control.

(b) Private persons or entities owning property in the District of Columbia may prohibit or restrict the possession of firearms on their property; provided, that this subsection shall not apply to law enforcement personnel when lawfully authorized to enter onto private property.

22–4502.01. Gun free zones; enhanced penalty.

(a) All areas within, 1000 feet of an appropriately identified public or private day care center, elementary school, vocational school, secondary school, college, junior college, or university, or any public swimming pool, playground, video arcade, youth center, or public library, or in and around public housing as defined in section 3(1) of the United States Housing Act of 1937, approved August 22, 1974 (88 Stat. 654; 42 U.S.C. § 1437a(b)), the development or administration of which is assisted by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, or in or around housing that is owned, operated, or financially assisted by the District of Columbia Housing Authority, or an event sponsored by any of the above entities shall be declared a gun free zone. For the purposes of this subsection, the term “appropriately identified” means that there is a sign that identifies the building or area as a gun free zone.

(b) Any person illegally carrying a gun within a gun free zone shall be punished by a fine up to twice that otherwise authorized to be imposed, by a term of imprisonment up to twice that otherwise authorized to be imposed, or both.

(c) The provisions of this section shall not apply to a person legally licensed to carry a firearm in the District of Columbia who lives or works within 1000 feet of a gun free zone or to members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corps of the United States; the National Guard or Organized Reserves when on duty; the Post Office Department or its employees when on duty; marshals, sheriffs, prison, or jail wardens, or their deputies; policemen or other duly-appointed law enforcement officers; officers or employees of the United States duly authorized to carry such weapons; banking institutions; public carriers who are engaged in the business of transporting mail, money, securities, or other valuables; and licensed wholesale or retail dealers.

Preemption

Not applicable. Washington D.C. is a tiny entity that is not actually a state, so no preemption applies in this instance.

Bottom Line

Washington D.C. is a place with stiff knife regulations, and even stiffer penalties for those who transgress.

But, contrary to popular opinion, it is entirely possible to carry a decent knife while in the District so long as one pays strict attention to the law, and to the multitudes of off-limits places where weapons are not allowed.

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