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The Legality of Automatic Knives in the United States

In a previous piece, we talked about the history of automatic knives, how they rose from quasi-military implements to practical tools to beautiful weapons — to heavily prohibited items during the 1950s in America. With the passing of the Federal Switchblade Act (L 85-623) in 1958, the manufacture, distribution, and sale of switchblades across state lines, and the story of automatic knives in the United States seemed over. But it wasn’t. In 2009, an amendment passed that opened up possession of automatic knives across almost all of the United States. 

Engines on, lights green, let’s go buy some automatic knives — right? Not so fast. Like most legal matters subtleties exist, and well-intentioned possessors of OTF and other automatic knives can accidentally run afoul of law enforcement even when they think they aren’t doing anything wrong. How? Read on to learn more.

What Does the Federal Switchblade Act Do?

Note: Before we begin, understand that nothing in this article is intended as legal advice, nor does reading it establish a lawyer/client relationship. If you have specific questions regarding the legality of automatic knives, reach out to qualified legal counsel.

The Federal Switchblade Act didn’t actually ever outright ban automatic knives. It was more subtle than that. We’ll provide a quick overview of the Act, but know that the website Knife Rights has a more extensive write up. 

The Act begins with definitions, saying, “The term “switchblade knife” means any knife having a blade which opens automatically — (1) by hand pressure applied to a button or other device in the handle of the knife, or (2) by operation of inertia, gravity, or both.” It then states, “Whoever knowingly introduces, or manufactures for introduction, into interstate commerce, or transports or distributes in interstate commerce, any switchblade knife, shall be fined not more than $2,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.” It also added, “Whoever, within any Territory or possession of the United States, within Indian country (as defined in section 1151 of title 18), or within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States (as defined in section 7 of title 18), manufactures, sells, or possesses any switchblade knife, shall be fined not more than $2,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.”

This sounds pretty damning for lovers of automatic knives, but step back for a moment and consider the language more carefully. The sections linked above do several things that may not seem entirely clear from the wording. They are …

  • Restricting buying, selling, and trading switchblade knives as legally defined between any states or territories
  • Making the manufacturing, possessing, or selling of switchblades entirely illegal only within Washington, D.C., Native American lands, Navy ships, government-owned planes, or American territories (e.g.,  Puerto Rico, Guam, Northern Marianas, U. S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa)

In short, the only time it is illegal to simply have a knife that’s federally defined as a switchblade is when you’re in the nation’s capital, a Native American nation, or certain federally owned bases or vehicles. Additionally, according to this Act, it’s only illegal to buy and sell switchblades such transactions occur across state lines. All transactions within state are perfectly legal according to federal law — and always have been.

What Did the 2009 Amendment to the Act Do?

The Federal Switchblade Act changed significantly in 2009 with the introduction of a single amendment. Under Section 1244, which is titled “Exceptions,” it added that the Act’s restrictions shall not apply to “a knife that contains a spring, detent, or other mechanism designed to create a bias toward closure of the blade and that requires exertion applied to the blade by hand, wrist or arm to overcome the bias toward closure to assist in opening the knife.” In other words, virtually all automatic knives in production today are legal — at least federally. The situation gets a bit more complicated when one considers state law.

Which States Place Restrictions on Automatic Knives?

Forty-four states allow individuals to own automatic knives, but roughly a dozen apply some sort of restriction, such as the following: 

  • California (blade must be shorter than 2”)
  • Colorado (cannot carry a concealed automatic knife with a blade length greater than 3-1/2”)
  • Connecticut (blade must not be longer than 1-1/2”)
  • Illinois (must possess a valid Firearms Owner’s Identification Card FOID)
  • Kentucky (must be a minimum of 21 years old)
  • Maryland (cannot carry a concealed automatic knife)
  • Massachusetts (blade must not be longer than 1-1/2”)
  • New York (may be possessed by licensed hunters, fur trappers, and fishermen, as well as active-duty military and many state employees)
  • North Carolina (concealed carry of automatic knives may be illegal)
  • North Dakota (blade must not be longer than 5”)
  • Vermont (blade must be shorter than 3”)
  • Washington (generally restricted to law enforcement, first responders, and military personnel when they are on official duty, transporting an automatic knife, or storing an automatic knife)
  • West Virginia (must have reached 21 years of age)

Six states entirely outlaw or having conflicting statutes regarding automatic knives. These include …

  • Delaware (restricts possession of a knife that “the blade of which is released by a spring mechanism or by gravity”)
  • Hawaii (automatic knives are likely illegal under existing statues)
  • Minnesota (automatic knives are likely illegal under existing statues)
  • New Mexico (statues outlaw switchblades, butterfly knives, and gravity knives; they likely also criminalize automatic knives, although there is legal ambiguity surrounding it)
  • Pennsylvania (restricts certain knives, “the blade of which is exposed in an automatic way by switch, push-button, spring mechanism, or otherwise”)
  • New Jersey (prohibits possession of “any knife or similar device which has a blade which opens automatically by hand pressure applied to a button, spring or other device in the handle of the knife”)

So if you live in a state that has explicitly or tacitly legalized automatic knives, are you able to own them and openly carry them and conceal them as you’d like? Not necessarily.

The Importance of Local Ordinances

Let’s choose the state of Florida as an example to see how knife laws practically play out. The Sunshine State has placed no restrictions on any knife type except ballistic knives (i.e., knives that fire their blades like a bullet). Unlicensed individuals can carry common pocketknives concealed, while licensed people may carry a much wider range of bladed weapons. As you can tell, Florida is one of the more open states when it comes to automatic knives — but not if you live in Miami-Dade county.

The most populous county in the state has harsh restrictions on the possession of many kinds of weapons, automatic knives included. Miami-Dade’s municipal code states, “It shall be unlawful for any person to sell, offer to sell, display, use, possess or carry any knife or knives having the appearance of a pocketknife, the blade or blades of which can be opened by a flick of a button, pressure on the handle, or other mechanical contrivance.” Consequences include forfeiture, six months in jail, and a fine not less than $1,000. A second offense pushes the penalty up to a year behind bars.

The lesson behind this survey is simple: Local statues should take precedence in your decision to possess an automatic knife. You can still get in trouble by violating local laws even if you live in a generally permissive state. When in doubt, search your county’s municipal code or (better yet) contact a qualified attorney.

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