California Knife Laws: What You Need to Know

https://www.survivalsullivan.com/california-knife-laws/

The Essentials

Legal to Carry Openly

  • Any knife except a switchblade with blade that is 2” or longer and other restricted knives, see below

Legal to Carry Concealed

  • Any non-restricted knife, see below

Restricted Knives – Illegal to Possess

  • Switchblade with blade of 2” or longer
  • Disguised pen knife
  • Disguised lipstick knife
  • Air gauge knife
  • Ballistic knife
  • Folding or fixed dirk
  • Folding or fixed dagger
  • Belt buckle knife
  • Sword cane
  • Shobi-zue
  • Undetectable knives
  • Shuriken
California flag

California Knife Law Overview

California reigns as one of the most litigious and proudly bureaucratic states there is, and it is no surprise that their knife laws are as convoluted, misleading and impossible to follow as the rest of their laws.

On the surface, things don’t look too bad, with no general prohibition on carry, openly or concealed, and even though there is a long list of prohibited knives, most of them are of a type that are little more than novelties to a serious user.

This is not apologist behavior, but all advocates of the second amendment know you must take what you can get in proud “Commiefornia.”

Don’t be fooled! However amicable the laws may seem, California has a long and distinguishes history of persecuting knife “crimes”, and doing so under auspices that range from insane to outright falsehood.

You will never be truly safe from frivolous law enforcement in California if you carry anything more dangerous than pair of nail clippers.

Warning: California’s legal system is capricious and in a constant state of change when it comes to interpretation and precedent.

What is legal today under one set of circumstances might be illegal tomorrow under the same. A person prosecuted for one imagined violation may see the person right behind them on the docket escape punishment for the same crime.

In California more than most places, you must exercise the uttermost caution and discretion to avoid trouble. Weapons violations of most kinds are felonies throughout the state.

Steel yourself and we’ll open up and discuss the worst of these transgressions below.

Relevant California State Statutes Covering Use and Ownership of Knives

  • CPC/PEN 16470
  • CPC/PEN 16590
  • CPC/PEN 17235
  • CPC/PEN 20200
  • CPC/PEN 21110
  • CPC/PEN 21190
  • CPC/PEN21310
  • CPC/PEN 21510
  • CPC/PEN 21590

Let’s begin with the rather extensive list of knives California generally prohibits from use, ownership and carry. While quite a few of these will be of no concern to “normal knife-owning Earth people”, the Devil is in the details.

California has a history of reckless and feckless misinterpretation of common definitions, and does so willingly to hoover up all kinds of otherwise innocent people who make the mistake of thinking they can carry common tools or weapons in California.

Due to this behavior, this list is in no way exhaustive when it comes to the knives that can get you in trouble. See CPC/PEN 16590:

DIVISION 2 – DEFINITIONS Section 16590.

As used in this part, “generally prohibited weapon” means any of the following:

(a) An air gauge knife, as prohibited by Section 20310.

(b) Ammunition that contains or consists of a flechette dart, as prohibited by Section 30210.

(c) A ballistic knife, as prohibited by Section 21110.

(d) A belt buckle knife, as prohibited by Section 20410.

(h) A cane sword, as prohibited by Section 20510.

(i) A concealed dirk or dagger, as prohibited by Section 21310.

(m) 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.

(n) A lipstick case knife, as prohibited by Section 20610.

(o) Metal knuckles, as prohibited by Section 21810.

(r) A nunchaku, as prohibited by Section 22010.

(s) A shobi-zue, as prohibited by Section 20710.

(u) A shuriken, as prohibited by Section 22410.

(y) A writing pen knife, as prohibited by Section 20910.

Many of the above knives will be unknown to all but aficionados of various Asian martial arts systems or interested knife hobbyists, but suffice it to say that California will interpret any and all of them as widely as possible to make carry of as many knives as possible illegal.

Definitions of all below in various sections.

We have more definitions, this time for dirks and daggers in 16470. Pay close attention to this one:

DIVISION 2 – DEFINITIONS Section 16470.

As used in this part, “dirk” or “dagger” means 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.

A nonlocking folding knife, a folding knife that is not prohibited by Section 21510, or a pocketknife is capable of ready use as a stabbing weapon that may inflict great bodily injury or death only if the blade of the knife is exposed and locked into position.

See how insidious that is? With a twist of a pen, even a common pocketknife may fit the definition of a dirk or dagger so long as the blade locks into place.

How much locking action and what kind of lock, the statutes say nowhere. Would a common Swiss army knife or other, bog-standard slip-joint knife fit that definition?

I can assure you that, based on current and past cases brought to court over related violations that it can indeed.

A few sections later, we see the punishment for carrying a knife of this category illegally:

CHAPTER 4 – Dirk or Dagger Section 21310.

Except as provided in Chapter 1 (commencing with Section 17700) of Division 2 of Title 2, 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 pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.

The only help we get on this front is in Section 20200, which states plainly that any knife worn in a sheath on the waist (suspended from the waist, not inside the waistband!) is not considered concealed carry under Sections 16140, 16340, 17350 and 21310:

CHAPTER 1 – General Provisions Section 20200.

A knife carried in a sheath that is worn openly suspended from the waist of the wearer is not concealed within the meaning of Section 16140, 16340, 17350, or 21310.

We can read the definition of switchblade in 17235, and one of the only glimmers of sanity in the entirety of California’s weapons statutes.

The “bias toward closure” language fast becoming standard to protect modern assisted opening knives is present in this passage, but even so you run the risk of falling afoul of many other laws no matter your knife’s action:

DIVISION 2 – DEFINITIONS Section 17235.

As used in this part, “switchblade knife” means 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.

“Switchblade knife” does not include a knife that opens with one hand utilizing thumb pressure applied solely to the blade of the knife or a thumb stud attached to the blade, provided that the knife has a detent or other mechanism that provides resistance that must be overcome in opening the blade, or that biases the blade back toward its closed position.

And a passage about unlawful possession thereof, Section 21590:

CHAPTER 5 – Switchblade Knife Section 21590.

The unlawful possession or carrying of any switchblade knife, as provided in Section 21510, is a nuisance and is subject to Sections 18000 and 18005.

Now, you can own a switchblade knife in California, you just cannot carry one on your person, in a vehicle, in a public place or pretty much anywhere. See Section 21510:

CHAPTER 5 – Switchblade Knife Section 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.

According to Sections 21110 and 21190, ballistic knives are expressly forbidden. A ballistic knife is one by which the blade of the knife is fired like a projectile using some form of propulsion, be it chemical propellant, springs or elastic pressure.

You can read both just below:

CHAPTER 3 – Ballistic Knife Section 21110.

Except as provided in Chapter 1 (commencing with Section 17700) of Division 2 of Title 2, any person in this state who manufactures or causes to be manufactured, imports into the state, keeps for sale, or offers or exposes for sale, or who gives, lends, or possesses any ballistic knife is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year or imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.

CHAPTER 3 – Ballistic Knife Section 21190.

Except as provided in Chapter 1 (commencing with Section 17700) of Division 2 of Title 2, any ballistic knife is a nuisance and is subject to Section 18010.

No possession or ownership of any kind whatsoever allowed when it comes to these intriguing weapons.

No-Go Zones

Schools. Any blade of any kind unless one is a badged police officer, state official or member of the military in the performance of his or her duties. Section 626.10 has the whole nine yards:

CHAPTER 1 – Schools Section 626.10.

(a) (1) Any person, except a duly appointed peace officer as defined in Chapter 4.5 (commencing with Section 830) of Title 3 of Part 2, a full-time paid peace officer of another state or the federal government who is carrying out official duties while in this state, a person summoned by any officer to assist in making arrests or preserving the peace while the person is actually engaged in assisting any officer, or a member of the military forces of this state or the United States who is engaged in the performance of his or her duties, who brings or possesses any dirk, dagger, ice pick, knife having a blade longer than 2 1/2 inches, folding knife with a blade that locks into place, razor with an unguarded blade

…taser, or stun gun, as defined in subdivision (a) of Section 244.5, any instrument that expels a metallic projectile, such as a BB or a pellet, through the force of air pressure, CO2 pressure, or spring action, or any spot marker gun…

…upon the grounds of, or within, any public or private school providing instruction in kindergarten or any of grades 1 to 12, inclusive, is guilty of a public offense, punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year, or by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.

(2) Any person, except a duly appointed peace officer as defined in Chapter 4.5 (commencing with Section 830) of Title 3 of Part 2, a full-time paid peace officer of another state or the federal government who is carrying out official duties while in this state, a person summoned by any officer to assist in making arrests or preserving the peace while the person is actually engaged in assisting any officer, or a member of the military forces of this state or the United States who is engaged in the performance of his or her duties, who brings or possesses a razor blade or a box cutter upon the grounds of, or within, any public or private school providing instruction in kindergarten or any of grades 1 to 12, inclusive, is guilty of a public offense, punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year.

(b) Any person, except a duly appointed peace officer as defined in Chapter 4.5 (commencing with Section 830) of Title 3 of Part 2, a full-time paid peace officer of another state or the federal government who is carrying out official duties while in this state, a person summoned by any officer to assist in making arrests or preserving the peace while the person is actually engaged in assisting any officer, or a member of the military forces of this state or the United States who is engaged in the performance of his or her duties, who brings or possesses any dirk, dagger, ice pick, or knife having a fixed blade longer than 2 1/2 inches upon the grounds of, or within, any private university, the University of California, the California State University, or the California Community Colleges is guilty of a public offense, punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year, or by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.

(c) Subdivisions (a) and (b) do not apply to any person who brings or possesses a knife having a blade longer than 2 1/2 inches, a razor with an unguarded blade, a razor blade, or a box cutter upon the grounds of, or within, a public or private school providing instruction in kindergarten or any of grades 1 to 12, inclusive, or any private university, state university, or community college at the direction of a faculty member of the private university, state university, or community college, or a certificated or classified employee of the school for use in a private university, state university, community college, or school-sponsored activity or class.

(d) Subdivisions (a) and (b) do not apply to any person who brings or possesses an ice pick, a knife having a blade longer than 2 1/2 inches, a razor with an unguarded blade, a razor blade, or a box cutter upon the grounds of, or within, a public or private school providing instruction in kindergarten or any of grades 1 to 12, inclusive, or any private university, state university, or community college for a lawful purpose within the scope of the person’s employment.

(e) Subdivision (b) does not apply to any person who brings or possesses an ice pick or a knife having a fixed blade longer than 21/2 inches upon the grounds of, or within, any private university, state university, or community college for lawful use in or around a residence or residential facility located upon those grounds or for lawful use in food preparation or consumption.

(g) Any certificated or classified employee or school peace officer of a public or private school providing instruction in kindergarten or any of grades 1 to 12, inclusive, may seize any of the weapons described in subdivision (a), and any certificated or classified employee or school peace officer of any private university, state university, or community college may seize any of the weapons described in subdivision (b), from the possession of any person upon the grounds of, or within, the school if he or she knows, or has reasonable cause to know, the person is prohibited from bringing or possessing the weapon upon the grounds of, or within, the school.

(h) As used in this section, “dirk” or “dagger” means 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.

Preemption

There is no statewide preemption in the State of California.

This means you’ll need to be extra cautious when traveling into or around any unknown municipality and be doubly wary in large cities, especially L.A., Sacramento and San Francisco.

Bottom Line

California is not a nice place for knife ownership and carry.

Assuming one can decipher their scattered, contradictory and lengthy regulations, you’ll be constantly on edge thanks to an aggressive, knife-hating judicial system, and the widest possible interpretations being applies to whatever chosen knife you carry.

Any and all laws are subject to capricious and malevolent interpretation in the Golden State, and that’s without delving into the heinous local and city laws.

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