State and local ordinances are not the only knife laws. The
federal government also has its own knife laws. Federal law
bans interstate commerce in switchblade knives. The only
exemption to this federal ban is direct sale to government
agencies by manufacturers.
Even before Congress banned interstate commerce in
switchblade and gravity knives in 1958, in response to media
frenzy about "juvenile delinquency," several states had
already enacted more or less absolute bans within their own
borders. The first was New Jersey, in 1956, followed quickly
by New York. Today about half the states have outright bans
on switchblade knives, while another dozen or so states ban
carry and/or commerce in switchblades.
Aside from the interstate ban on switchblade knives,
federal knife laws are of relatively narrow application. For
example, an 1860s law bans sailors on U.S. flag merchant
ships from wearing fixed blade sheath knives while aboard
ship. A logical reading of the Constitution would seem to
rule out any federal restriction on "keeping and bearing
arms," but logic plays little part in legislation.
State laws are the most important knife laws, but they are
certainly not the only knife laws. Some state legislatures
have pre-empted weapons law (i.e. claimed a monopoly on
making this type of law), but most have not. In states which
have not pre-empted, individual counties, cities, and towns
can have their own knife or other weapons ordinances, and
many of them do.
Even in states which have pre-empted weapons laws, big
cities sometimes pass and enforce knife laws anyway
(Portland, Oregon, in its attempt to ban pocketknives, was a
recent example; the ban survived three levels of appeal,
until being overturned by the State Supreme Court). These
unconstitutional ordinances place the burden of defense and
appeal on the unlucky citizens who happen to get charged.
A few jurisdictions have explicit knife-related ordinances,
but most include knives within broader "concealed weapon,"
"dangerous weapon," or "deadly weapon" statutes. A few of
these state and local laws date back to the wild frontier
days of bowie knives and pocket dirks. The majority, however,
were first enacted during the anarchist scares of the 1880s
and the 1910s. Then, as now, publicity-hungry politicians
attacked the hardware, rather than the perpetrators, I
suppose because hardware does not vote.
The meaning of most of these state laws is ambiguous, their
terms either poorly defined, or not defined at all. In large
part this vagueness was intentional, for it gave wide
discretion to local police and judges. These laws' practical
day-to-day meaning can only be understood from a study of
relevant appellate decisions, which are summarized in notes
in the various state law codes. Therefore I have included
relevant extracts from that case law here.
It is curious how two states with essentially the same
law (based on a generic "Model Penal Code") can interpret
them in exactly opposite ways, such as in deciding whether or
not a butcher knife is a "bowie knife" or a "dirk or dagger,"
or in deciding whether "self-defense" is a mitigating or an
aggravating factor in carrying a weapon. Much case law from
the 1960s and earlier, some of it still in force, was
implicitly based upon the race and social class of the
individual on trial. This harks back to England, where "at
common law it was an offense to carry a weapon unless the
bearer was of proper social standing." [Perkins, Criminal
An Illinois legislative committee summed up the whole
subject of deadly weapon laws very neatly back in 1961:
"The possession and use of dangerous weapons has long
presented a problem to the law... Statutes of this kind have
been criticized for having the effect of prohibiting the law-
abiding citizen from protecting himself, while at the same
time failing to reach the criminal who habitually uses
dangerous weapons for illegal ends. Nevertheless, a great
many convictions have been obtained for the crime of carrying
concealed weapons. Hence, the Committee felt that a
continuation of the same policies which lie behind the
present law of deadly weapons was desirable."
Translated into plain English, they said that this law only
affects law-abiding citizens, but since many of them have
been convicted, and thus have been redefined as criminals,
let's keep enforcing it.
To read more about the history and philosophy of KNIFE LAWs click here