Knife laws in Massachusetts support a far-ranging definition of knife ownership yet impose strict, lengthy, and confusing regulations on actually carrying the knives a person possesses outside the home. Practically any knife or bladed implement can be legally owned in the Old Colony State, but most of them cannot be carried either openly or concealed.
Some knives are illegal to manufacture or sell in Massachusetts despite the fact they can be legally owned, meaning they must be acquired out of state and brought in without carrying them (that is, by placing them in a locked box in the owner’s car) if ownership of that type is desired.
Furthermore, otherwise legal knives may become illegal if another person perceives the knife as dangerous; though this usually applies to knives visible, but not used, during illegal activity, the precedent’s wording is broad enough to support harsher interpretations. Massachusetts is a state where it pays to be cautious if you are a knife owner, as most knife violations carry a penalty of from 6 months to 5 years in prison.
Legality of Knife Possession
The state of Massachusetts does not regulate actual ownership or possession of knives, nor does it ban ownership of any knife type. Note, however, that ownership does not include the automatic right to sell, transfer, or give away knives; some knives may be legal to own yet illegal to sell or give to anyone else. A Massachusetts resident can own, and carry on their private property or in their home (if renting), any sort of bladed implement, from pocket knives and switchblades to Bowie knives, swords, sword canes, throwing stars (known as “shuriken” in Massachusetts law), machetes, daggers, disguised knives, and so forth.
According to the General Laws of Massachusetts, Part IV, Title I, Chapter 269, section § 12, a variety of knives cannot be legally manufactured or sold inside Massachusetts. Flouting this law carries a penalty of $50 to $1,000 and up to 6 months’ imprisonment. The knife types forbidden for manufacture and sale include dirks (which, broadly speaking, are any double-edged fixed blade knives), switchblades and automatic knives with blades longer than 1.5”, ballistic knives, sword canes, shuriken, and knives with built-in metallic knuckles (such as World War I trench knives). Buying such a knife is legal, but the seller, if in-state, is breaking the law, while the buyer is not. These blades can be purchased out of state and carried to the home in a locked box inside the owner’s vehicle, or purchased online and shipped to the purchaser’s home address, permitting lawful acquisition.
Strict limits to open carry are set by Chapter 269, section § 10. This long-winded legal passage outlaws carrying “dangerous weapons.” Knives which count as dangerous weapons are listed in subsection 6(b), and include stilettos, daggers, ballistic knives, dirks, double-edged knives whether folding or fixed blade, locking knives, switchblades, automatic knives exceeding 1.5” blade length, and shuriken. None of these blades are eligible for either open carry or concealed carry. Violations of this ban may carry a penalty of a minimum sentence of 2.5 years in prison and a maximum sentence of 5 years in prison, though first time offenders may escape with a fine of $50 or, alternatively, up to 2.5 years in prison.
The 1996 case of Commonwealth v. Albert F. Smith, 40 Mass. App. Ct. 770, established the precedent that a partially sharp second edge counts as an illegal double-edged knife. Clip point knives with a sharpened clip are therefore as unlawful for open or concealed carry as a dagger, dirk, or sword.
Though pocket knives, Swiss army knives (and presumably multitools), and kitchen knives were classified as legal for open carry by 1994’s Commonwealth v. Henry, Commonwealth v. Michael Tarrant in 1975, 367 Mass. 411, though relating to the presence of a medium-sized German shepherd dog at a robbery, established the general precedent that if any otherwise neutral object appears to be a dangerous weapon or could be used as a dangerous weapon, then it counts as a dangerous weapon if a jury decides that the fear of the person viewing the neutral object as a dangerous weapon is objectively true. This could theoretically lead to the open carry of an otherwise legal knife being construed by a jury as a dangerous, illegal weapon, as for example if someone were to become frightened by seeing an individual wearing a large pocket knife at their belt walking nearby in a nighttime parking lot.
Finally, it is illegal to carry a knife on school grounds, at a school, at school-sponsored events, in courthouses, prisons, and government buildings.
Knife Length Limit
The state of Massachusetts establishes few blade length limits, but automatic knives with blades longer than 1.5 inches are dangerous weapons illegal to carry outside the home.
Concealed Carry of Knives
Regular folding knives (pocket knives with a single edge), Swiss army knives, and kitchen knives may be carried concealed. However, if used in a way that renders them dangerous, they become illegal.
Other Knife Law Considerations in Massachusetts
Massachusetts has no statewide preemption and additional knife carry restrictions by local ordinances are widespread. The cities of Boston, Lawrence, New Bedford, Revere, Salem, and Somerville among others impose a 2.5” maximum blade length limit on concealed knives such as pocket knives, though some exempt knives actually being used during hunting. The knife owner must be prepared to deal with these local ordinances in addition to complying with the tight, complex restrictions enacted by the state itself.
Resources and Further Reading