Knife Laws in California

People wishing to carry a knife in California face a battery of restrictions, classifications, and rules on the state level, plus numerous local ordinances. With no preemption law in place, municipal administrators are free to enact even more restrictions than the state government imposes, and many choose to do so. Dozens, if not hundreds, of local regulations apply to blades in warm, sunny confines of this large west coast state.

California state law divides knives into those eligible for concealed carry, those which can only be legally carried openly in a sheath at the owner’s belt, and those illegal under all circumstances. While some violations of the rules carry only small misdemeanor charges, others can inflict up to 36 months in prison and/or fines up to $10,000, even in the total absence of criminal use or intent. Having a provable work-related or sporting use for the blade is no excuse in the eyes of the California court system.

While carrying knives openly or concealed is legal if the numerous legislative provisions are observed, knife owners should exercise caution to avoid running afoul of the law. On the other hand, California is one of few states permitting knife-carrying in private and public colleges and universities, though with a strict 2.5” length limit.

Legality of Knife Possession

Concealed carry of knives is permitted for folding knives such as pocket knives and blades of similar design. This category excludes any knife capable of being opened nearly instantly, such as a switchblade or gravity knife. The state itself imposes no length limit on these blades, though many cities and counties do so. If the blade can be locked open, the knife cannot be carried concealed and counts as a “dirk or dagger.” For our #1 recommendation on the best folding pocket knife, we suggest The Patriot by Banner Knives.

A second category, originally including “dirks and daggers” but repeatedly expanded to cover all knives with fixed blades regardless of length. This category also covers other instruments capable of being used to deliver a seriously injuring or fatal stab, such as scissors, ice picks, and metal knitting needles. These implements may be legally carried as long as they are carried openly. For knives, this means they must be placed in a sheath on the belt, with the handle or hilt fully exposed to view. California Penal Code 20200 PC, the “open carry” law for the state, explains the exemption.

Many knife types are completely illegal in California. Not only are these knives ineligible for both open and concealed carry in public, ownership of them is itself banned. Simply carrying one of these knives on your person or in a container such as a purse is legally interpreted as showing criminal intent and is punishable by law.

Switchblades head the list of fully illegal knives in the Golden State. Switchblades include gravity knives and all types where a mechanical fitting or wrist flick causes rapid blade deployment. One-handed pocket knives opened with a thumb stud on the blade are exempted as long as there is a detent or if the construction is “biased towards closure.” California Penal Code 17235 deals with this matter.

Other illegal knives include balisong knives, spring-loaded knives, and ballistic knives. California law also prohibits possession or carrying of knives made to resemble another object, such as lipstick knives, belt buckle knives, sword canes, and knife pens. Knives fabricated from substances undetectable by standard metal detectors are illegal regardless of their other characteristics.

Knife Length Limit

California’s legal codification of knives into a number of categories is matched by an equally complex set of knife length limits. Most straightforwardly, knives legally carried in a belt sheath have no legal blade length limit at the state level. Municipalities may enforce local ordinances that take a different approach.

For concealed carry, the state of California itself applies no length limit, though the knife must have a pocket knife-like design without mechanical switches for deployment and a detent or a built-in bias towards closure. However, many localities – probably the majority of those to have their own weapon ordinances – ban concealed carry of pocket knives with blades 3” long or longer. Some entire counties, such as Sacramento County, make knives 3” or longer illegal.

A number of corner cases also apply to knife length in California. In a public building, or at a meeting open to the public regardless of the venue, switchblades of any length are banned, as are other knives otherwise illegal in California, plus fixed-blade knives with blades longer than 4” or folding knives of the same dimensions capable of being locked open, thus making them effectively fixed.

In the case of schools and universities, knives are permitted, but only if they are 2.5” long or shorter. Ice picks, box cutters, razor blades, and unguarded razors of any size are also banned in these locations, as detailed in California Penal Code section 626.10(a). Rescue personnel, law enforcement, and authorized employees such as repair staff are exempted from the length restriction on knives if these are part of their working kit.

Concealed Carry of Knives

As noted, concealed carry is permitted only for knives made with a pocket knife configuration. Numerous towns and some counties also impose a less than 3” size limit on concealed blades. This drops to 2.5” on school grounds and campuses.

Other Knife Law Considerations in California

California’s open carry law is the state’s main expression of knife rights for blade owners. The hilt or handle cannot be hidden by a fold of clothing or even part of the sheath. Essentially, the law was promulgated to prevent “surprise attacks,” and outlines a carrying method designed to enable everyone near the knife-carrier to see clearly that they are indeed in possession of the blade.

Any violation of the law is taken as proof of intent to commit a crime with the knife in question, punishable as a misdemeanor or a felony depending on which part of California’s “wobbler” laws is applied. Overall, the state’s rules are weighted in favor of maximizing restrictions on knife possession and carrying without an outright ban.

Resources and Further Reading