Pennsylvania knife statutes are short and lacking in clear definitions. In order to determine what the law is, one must look at Court decisions, or case law. This article takes the statutes and the case law and puts it in a clear and organized manner that anyone can understand.
What is Legal to Own
- It is legal to own Bowie knife
- It is legal to own a Balisong, or butterfly knife
- It is legal to own a penknife
- It is legal to own a concealed knife, such as in a lipstick or belt buckle
- It is legal to own any kind of hunting knife
What is Illegal to Own
- There is something called the “CURIO EXCEPTION” in Pennsylvania which refers to the concept that you can technically own any knife you want, but you have to make a good argument for your purpose in owning the knife. In other words, if you own a 25-inch sword or switchblade, you must make a compelling case that you own it for “lawful” purposes like theatrical purposes, or as a display in a showcase in your home, etc. If you cannot offer a compelling case, you may be in violation of the law. In fact, there is a case of one dude carrying a sword and when he showed up in court, he told everyone that he had just bought it and was bringing it home. The court didn’t buy it and he was officially charged. You see, if your weapon is readily available to use quickly and easily, then you can’t use the curio exception argument. If you buy a knife for “curio” reasons, it must be packaged in a way that does not allow you to use it on anyone quickly and easily. My thoughts???! Just stay the frig away from freaky things like switchblades, gravity knives and knuckle-busters. I’m into knives, but I’m not an anarchist looking to “stick it to the man”. I appreciate most cops and have a respect for the law even if I don’t always agree 100% with it.
Limits on Carry
- It is legal to open or conceal carry any hunting knife
- It is legal to open or conceal carry any knife that does not open automatically and has a lawful purpose
- It is ILLEGAL to open or conceal carry any knife fitting the definition of “Prohibited offensive weapons”
- It is ILLEGAL to carry any knife onto the grounds of any K – 12 school in PA, as well as courthouse buildings.
What is a Restricted Knife?
Any knife ‘the blade of which is exposed in an automatic way by a switch, push-button, spring mechanism, or otherwise,’ is restricted.
If you’d like to stay away from legal problems as much as possible, my opinion is that you stay away from “restricted knives”. Don’t freak on me, that’s just MY OPINION!
What the Law States
There are several statutes that pertain to knife ownership and conduct.
- Possession of weapons on school properties – 18 Pa. CSA § 912
- Possessing instruments of crime – 18 Pa. CSA § 907
- Prohibited weapons – 18 Pa. CSA § 908
- Possessing a dangerous weapon or firearm in a court building – 18 Pa. CSA § 913
§ 908. Prohibited offensive weapons.
Any dagger, knife, razor or cutting instrument, 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.
“no common lawful purpose”
This phrase basically refers to the idea that if you are carrying a knife that fits a purpose for which you could conceiveably need or use that knife realistically, and that purpose is lawful (ie. carrying a small, folding pocket knife while fishing, camping, carving wood in your back yard, etc.) then you’re good. If you are carrying 4 switchblades and a sword in a sketchy neighborhood late at night with a very purposeful, intense walk and stare, then the odds are that your purpose in carrying those knives is not “lawful”, so you’d likely be arrested.
(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….
“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…… or other implement for the infliction of serious bodily injury which serves no common lawful purpose…..
Implements to Inflict Bodily Injury and Common Lawful Purpose Defined
In 1975, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, set forth a “circumstances-of-the-possession” test, in Commonwealth v. Gatto, in order to determine if a weapon had a common lawful purpose. Mr. Gatto was arrested for having a thirty-inch knife during the early morning hours in the downtown area of Scranton. The Court held that the knife was an implement for the infliction of bodily injury, which served no common lawful purpose. In its ruling, the Court stated: “Had appellant been on a journey through the tropical rain forests of South America, attempting to travel by foot from Bogota, Colombia to Caracas, Venezuela it could then be reasonably concluded that a thirty-inch knife had a common lawful purpose; but appellant was in a high crime urban area of Scranton.”
Four years later, in Commonwealth v. Ashford, the Court state that Gatto should not be construed as setting forth a circumstances-of-the-possession test for determining whether a weapon served a common lawful purpose, saying the test had no place in determining whether there had been a violation of weapons possession code. Shortly after Ashford, in Commonwealth v. Fisher, the Supreme Court held that on a charge possessing or carrying a prohibited offensive weapon, the circumstances-of-the-possession test was inappropriate in determining whether the weapon served a common lawful purpose.
In 1980, in Commonwealth v. Artis, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed Mr. Artis’ conviction for possession of a prohibited weapon was reversed because the trial court improperly applied the circumstances of the possession test when determining whether the knife served a common lawful purpose. The knife was a folding knife, which Mr. Artis testified he purchased at a sporting goods store, to use for hunting and fishing. Therefore, it did not matter under what circumstances he possessed it, as it had a common lawful purpose.
More recently, in 1996, in the case of Commonwealth v. Karlson, the Court concluded that Mr. Karlson did not violate the prohibited offensive weapon statute when he sold four “Cobra” knives to an undercover police officer. The Court held that in order to convict Mr. Karlson, the state was required to offer evidence that the knives served no common lawful purpose. It said that unless they were specifically outlawed, knives were not objects of a criminal nature that were prohibited under the prohibited weapons statute.
Conversely, in 2007, in Commonwealth v. Alvarez, Mr. Alvarez’s possession of a two and a half foot long medieval-type battle-ax with a blade that was almost 10-inches long was held to be within the definition of a weapon that did not have a common lawful purpose.
Conclusion on Pennsylvania Knife Law
It is legal to open or conceal carry any type of knife in Pennsylvania other than those which fall into the category of “prohibited offensive weapon”. It is legal to own nearly any knife as long as you can convince either a police officer or a judge that you own it for “lawful purposes” under the “curio” exception.
- 18 P.S. § 4416 (2013)
- Commonwealth v. Gatto, 344 A.2d 566 (1975)
- Commonwealth v. Ashford, 397 A.2d 420 (1979)
- Commonwealth v. Fisher, 400 A.2d 1284 (1979)
- Commonwealth v. Karlson, 674 A.2d 249 (1996)
- Commonwealth v. Artis, 418 A.2d 644, (1980)
- Commonwealth v. Alvarez, 935 A.2d 3, (2007)
*updated August 2019