California has relatively friendly knife laws, but as you can expect, with large urban centers like L.A. and others, there are some differences between urban laws and restrictions in other regions. Unlike other states who’s knife law is out of date, California Knife Law is modern and up-to-date. This article will talk about what is legal, illegal, and in the gray area concerning knives in California.
In California, there are a number of different knife laws that you have to follow when it comes to purchasing knives and other sharp instruments. The knife laws of California are relatively friendly, although you can expect some differences between urban and regional laws. In contrast to other states whose knife laws are out of date, California’s knife laws are up-to-date and modern. In this article, we discuss which knives are allowed in California and those that are not.
Legal Knives In California
- Bowie knives are legal.
- Large knives are legal (no restrictions in size).
- Carrying knives in the open is legal in California.
- Carrying knives concealed is legal in California for most knives.
- Switchblades with a blade less than 2 inches long.
Illegal Knives Under California Knife Laws
A quick search on Google for “illegal knives” results in plenty of results, but there are plenty of common misconceptions.
Some people believe that knives, including kitchen and hunting knives, are illegal in California. This is a very common misconception. Here is what you need to know.
Here is an overview (non-exhaustive) of illegal knives as per the California Penal Code pertaining to knives:
- A ballistic knife, as prohibited by Section 21110.
- A belt buckle knife, as prohibited by Section 20410.
- A cane sword, as prohibited by Section 20510.
- A concealed dirk or dagger, as prohibited by Section 21310.
- A leaded cane or an instrument or weapon of the kind commonly known as a billy, blackjack, sandbag, sandclub, sap, or slungshot, as prohibited by Section 22210.
- A lipstick case knife, as prohibited by Section 20610.
- Metal knuckles, as prohibited by Section 21810.
- A nunchaku, as prohibited by Section 22010.
- A shobi-zue, as prohibited by Section 20710.
- A writing pen knife, as prohibited by Section 20910.
- The California Attorney General has concluded that a “butterfly knife” is considered a switchblade. 68 Ops. Cal. Atty. Gen. 332.
- “Balisong” and Tekna sheath-retracting knives are considered prohibited switchblades. See People ex rel. Mautner v. Quattrone, 260 Cal. Rptr. 44 (Ct. App. 1989).
Disguised knives are illegal
Disguised knives include cane knives (and shobi-zues), lipstick knives (a knife that is enclosed in a lipstick case), belt buckle knives, air gauge knives, and penknives. They are considered a nuisance and can be destroyed under Cal. Penal Code § 18010.
All undetectable knives are illegal
The knives that are designed to not set off metal detectors are illegal.
Ballistic knives are illegal
Ballistic knives are knives with detachable blades that can be ejected to a distance of several meters/yards by pressing a trigger or operating a lever or switch on the handle.
Switchblades with a blade over 2 inches
Switchblades with a blade over 2 inches long are Illegal to carry (see penal code section 21510).
However, there is an exception for pocket knives in Penal Code section 21510. This exception specifically exempts pocket knives which can be opened by one-hand usage by pushing the handle in with the thumb, as long as the knife has “a detent or other mechanism that resists opening of the blade, or that holds it back.”
The apparent intent of the California Legislature was to avoid criminalizing the carrying of knives that are not capable of ready use because they are carried in a closed, secured state.
Small knives obviously designed to be carried in a pocket in a closed state, and which cannot be used until there have been several intervening manipulations, do not fall within the definition of proscribed dirks or daggers, but are a type of “pocketknife” excepted from the statutory proscription against the concealed possession thereof. See In re Luke W., 105 Cal. Rptr. 2d 905 (Ct. App. 2001)
Dirks And Daggers
If you are a resident of California, it is illegal to carry daggers or dirks concealed on your person. While these items aren’t usually associated with violence, they both fall under California Penal Code Section 12020. The law even applies to historical replicas.
Daggers are fixed blade knives without a folding mechanism. Daggers are very small and are almost always concealed in a boot, tie, or in some sort of sheath. Daggers are a one-handed weapon and are used for close-range combat. Daggers are also known as a stiletto, or a poniard, which is a long dagger with a slender blade.
However, a knife which appeared to be a common bread knife with one dull serrated edge and one blunt edge, was held not to be a “dirk or dagger” within the meaning of the section of the Penal Code prohibiting possession of a concealed dirk or dagger, where the knife had characteristics which substantially limited its effectiveness as a stabbing instrument (i.e., it had no sharp edges, no stabbing point, no handguards, and the blade was not stiff).
California Penal Code Section 21310 provides that any person in this state who carries concealed upon the person any dirk or dagger is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year or imprisonment.
This penal code section does not require the accused to intend to use the dirk or dagger as a weapon in order to be convicted for carrying a concealed dirk or dagger. However, it still must be shown that the accused intentionally carried a concealed dirk or dagger. So, if someone planted a dagger in your backpack without your knowledge and you could prove that you did not know it was in your backpack you would not be guilty of violating the penal code.
In People v. Mowatt, 65 Cal. Rptr. 2d 722 (Ct. App. 1997), the court held that an ordinary hunting knife, which was primarily designed for lawful uses but subject to misuse, was not “dirk or dagger.
In People v. Forrest, 67 Cal. 2d 478, 432 P.2d 374 (1967), the court held that an oversized pocket knife, not designed primarily for stabbing, as matter of law, was not a “dirk or dagger”, since the knife folded like a pocket knife and the blade when opened did not lock in place.
Another interesting case is In re George W., 80 Cal. Rptr. 2d 868 (Ct. App. 1998). In that case, a California appellate court ruled that a folding knife with a three-and-a-half to four-inch steel blade that locked into place when opened was not “dirk or dagger,” within the meaning of statute prohibiting anyone from carrying a dirk or dagger concealed on his or her person. The court stated:
It is undisputed that the appellant was asleep on the living room couch when the police officers entered to conduct the probation search. It is also undisputed that during a pat-down search police officers found a folding knife with a blade capable of locking into position in the appellant’s front pants pocket. However, there is no evidence in the record demonstrating or tending to suggest the blade of the folding knife in appellant’s pocket was exposed and locked into position—as opposed to being closed and retracted into its handle.
As a result, the record evidence is insufficient to establish that the appellant carried the concealed folding knife in such a way as to satisfy the controlling statutory definition of “dirk or dagger”—namely that the folding knife had its blade exposed and locked into position.
The key factor in the case was that the knife was exposed and locked into position at the time the police found the knife.
By implication, a switchblade knife can be considered an illegal dirk or dagger when it is in the closed position.
There is a significant difference between a non-locking folding knife and a locking folding knife. The exposed blade of a locking folding knife is immobile.
The exposed blade of a non-locking folding knife can be collapsed simply by folding the blade back into the handle.
See People v. Plumlee, 83 Cal. Rptr. 3d 172 (Ct. App. 2008) (holding that switchblade knife found in defendant’s possession was a dirk or dagger within the meaning of statute prohibiting carrying of a concealed dirk or dagger, even though it was concealed in its closed position); People v. Castillolopez, 63 Cal. 4th 322, 371 P.3d 216 (2016) (holding that folding knife was not “locked into position” and thus was not a prohibited “dirk or dagger.”)
Essentially, the law is targeting knives usually used by criminals to commit crimes. These are knives that don’t look like knives or aren’t really practical as a tool. For example, a dagger is a tool that’s meant only for slashing.
Laws Concerning Brandishing of Knives
Under Penal Code § 417 it is illegal in California to brandish any deadly weapon, including knives.
The law states that it is unlawful for any person to “draw or exhibit any deadly weapon . .” However, there is an exception to the law that allows the brandishing of a deadly weapon such as a knife in self-defense.
Brandishing a weapon is, therefore, a serious offense in California. While California law says that it is legal to possess a knife, it is illegal to brandish a weapon. Penal Code § 417 is used to prosecute people who threaten others with weapons. If you are arrested for this offense, you could face harsh penalties.
Laws Concerning Switchblade Knives
Sec. 21510. Every person who does any of the following with a switchblade knife having a blade two or more inches in length is guilty of a misdemeanor:
(a) Possesses the knife in the passenger’s or driver’s area of any motor vehicle in any public place or place open to the public.
(b) Carries the knife upon the person.
(c) Sells, offers for sale, exposes for sale, loans, transfers, or gives the knife to any other person.
It is legal to own, sell, buy, and transport a switchblade as long as it is less than 2 inches. A California appellate court has ruled that a Balisong knife is a switchblade because of how easily it can be opened. However, you can still buy Balisong knives that are over 2 inches if you do not carry them in the driver or passenger seat or on you. Simply put, if you buy Balisongs to collect and leave them at home, it is 100% OK.
Cal. Penal Code § 17235 defines a “switchblade knife” as “a knife having the appearance of a pocketknife and includes a spring-blade knife, snap-blade knife, gravity knife, or any other similar type knife, the blade or blades of which are two or more inches in length and which can be released automatically by a flick of a button, pressure on the handle, flip of the wrist or other mechanical device, or is released by the weight of the blade or by any type of mechanism whatsoever.”
It is illegal under California Penal Code § 17235 to carry a switchblade in California. People who violate this law can face up to $1000 in fines and up to 6 months in jail.
Prohibitions On Knives On School Grounds
Pursuant to Penal Code 626.10(a)(1) and (2), it is illegal to have in your possession the types of knives of the type listed below on the grounds of the following school properties:
- California State University
- University of California
- Any private university
- California Community Colleges
- Any school that instructs grades K-12
Knives that are prohibited on these school premises are:
- Dirks and daggers
- Knives with blades longer than 2 ½”
- Folding knives with locking blades
- Ice picks
- Razors with unguarded blades
- Razor blades or box cutters
Possession of any of these restricted knives on the above-listed school grounds may result in a misdemeanor or felony charge and 1-3 years in a county jail. Charges and penalties for concealed carry crimes are discussed in more detail below.
However, there are exceptions for peace officers, licensed security guards, and others who have a valid business on campus.
Concealed weapons are seen as posing a significant danger to the general public, and as such, they are heavily regulated. It is not legal to conceal carry a dagger or other double-edged knife. This is per California Penal Code Sect. 21310 PC.
While it seems a bit foolish to us, the law allows someone to openly carry a dagger. That means that if you carry a concealed dagger and intend NO harm (and even forget you have it), you are guilty of a crime. On the other hand, if you open carry a dagger, you can legally walk right up to your intended target and put your hand on the handle, ready to pull it out, and you’re good! No law is broken!
If you are charged with carrying a concealed illegal weapon like a dirk or dagger, the prosecutor has to prove four things:
- You were carrying an illegal knife on your person.
- You knowingly possessed the knife.
- You substantially concealed the knife on your person.
- You knew that the knife could be used as a stabbing weapon.
A dirk or dagger is a knife or other instrument with or without a handguard that is capable of ready use as a stabbing weapon that may inflict great bodily injury or death. See Penal Code Section 16470. Most pocket knives and folding knives are not considered to be dirks or daggers unless the blade of the knife is exposed and locked into position.
However, California courts have held that box cutters constitute daggers within the meaning of the statute prohibiting the carrying of concealed daggers. The court held that a box cutter found in the backpack worn by the defendant was “concealed on his person” within the meaning of statute. See People v. Hester, 272 Cal. Rptr. 3d 648 (Ct. App. 2020).
It is not necessary that the accused intended to use the dagger as a weapon in order to be successfully convicted for carrying a concealed dirk or dagger under California Penal Code Section 21310 PC.
You can read more info on the California Penal Code pertaining to legal/illegal knives HERE.
For specifics on knife laws in the city limits of LOS ANGELES, read our post HERE.
Conclusion On California Knife Laws
If you are in California, you can buy, own, transport, and carry any knife you want as long as it is not a forbidden knife. You can also collect Balisongs without worry.
Dirk knives and daggers are illegal to carry concealed. Switchblades with a blade 2″ or longer are illegal to carry. A wide variety of unusual knives are also illegal to carry. Violation of the carry statute is a felony. Carrying a switchblade may be a misdemeanor (see Discussion for more).
Note that this is not legal advice and there is no client-attorney relationship.
There may be times when the material on this site is no longer current due to rapid changes in the law. It’s provided for informational purposes only and not intended as legal advice. It should not be considered comprehensive or exhaustive and is not a substitute for advice from your attorney. We make no express or implied warranty as to the material’s accuracy, reliability, completeness, timeliness, or appropriateness for a particular purpose, including applicability to your jurisdiction or circumstances. We assume no liability whatsoever for any direct, indirect, or consequential damages resulting from your reliance on this material; you do so at your own risk. It is recommended that you seek the advice of an attorney.
If you have a question, leave it in the comment below. Some cities and municipalities might have their own knife laws, so check with your city. We are also looking for an attorney to do a quick interview about California knife laws.
Attorney D. Friedman was consulted in connection with the writing of this Knife Laws guide.