Knife Laws in Washington

Washington State, ranging from the picturesque coast, farms, and marinas of the Puget Sound area to the snowy peaks of the interior, is a state the knife laws of which have been notably revised in recent years. During the 2012 Regular Session of the Washington state legislature, a bill passed into law legalizing many types of automatic knives and leaving only a narrow range of “spring blade knives” illegal in the state. Most other knife varieties are fully legal in the Evergreen State.

Carrying is a dicey proposition in Washington due to the existing knife laws. Concealed carry is illegal for a number of knife types, including daggers and dirks. While open carry is technically allowed for any legal knife, it becomes a crime if any person becomes “alarmed” seeing the knife being carried, even if the alarm is caused accidentally.

Furthermore, Washington state has no preemption law. Dozens of municipalities and counties in the Evergreen State maintain their own knife laws, which are frequently stricter than the state’s laws. Though the state imposes no legal blade length limits, the individual locations within it frequently do.

Legality of Knife Possession

Thanks to the passage of House Bill 2347 in 2012, the number of knife types illegal to own in Washington state has shrunken abruptly. This bill, among other things, amended Revised Code Washington (RCW) section § 9.41.250, removing several kinds of switchblade knives from the illegal list. At the moment, only “spring blade knives” opened by a spring mechanism, gravity, or centrifugal force are illegal for ordinary citizens to own, buy, or sell in Washington state.

Knives with springs or detents biasing towards closure, and that therefore require physical effort with the hand, wrist, or arm to open, are now legal, even if they are “assisted opening” or use some kind of mechanism to open in addition to physical work.

Furthermore, even illegal switchblades and gravity knives can be made, bought, and sold, but only to emergency personnel such as police and firefighters, or to people enlisted in the various branches of the United States military.

Any other kind of knife can be owned and, in theory at least, open carried. This includes pocketknives, balisong knives, Bowie knives, daggers, swords, machetes, KA-BAR knives, hunting knives, assisted-opening knives with a bias towards closure, throwing knives, push knives, and many other knife and blade types.

Open carry is legal in the state, but is limited by a rule that if a knife is carried in such a way as to cause “alarm” to any person observing it being carried, the act of carrying becomes criminal. Causing fear and alarm without intent is no defense. As usual, school grounds, courthouses, prisons, and government buildings are off-limits to any kind of carrying.

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Knife Length Limit

Washington state imposes no knife length limits, but many of the municipalities and counties within it do not allow knives over a certain length.

Concealed Carry of Knives

RCW § 9.41.250 makes it illegal to carry dirks, daggers, or any other “dangerous weapon” concealed. The statutory law fails to describe what a dangerous weapon is, but case law provides a precedent to fill the gap.

The 2002 case of State v. Bonebright, 20399-9-III, in which a minor forgot a knife in his jacket pocket, locked in a locker at school, and was found guilty of a misdemeanor, established that any item capable of “inflicting great bodily harm” is a dangerous weapon. Therefore, any knife capable of inflicting such harm is illegal to conceal in Washington state. The opinion further noted that this applies to both folding and fixed blades, but provides no additional guidance regarding length or other factors.

Therefore, concealed carry of any knife is legally risky in the state.

Other Knife Law Considerations in Washington

RCW § 9.41.270 makes it a gross misdemeanor to “carry, exhibit, display, or draw” a knife, dagger, sword, or any other cutting or stabbing item or implement that appears capable of inflicting an injury through cutting or stabbing, in such as way as to cause intimidation or alarm “for the safety of other persons.” The case of State v. Byrd (2005), in which Byrd clearly meant to intimidate, established that intent is not needed for alarm for the safety of other persons to be valid.

Though not generally applied to open carry cases in which the carrier does not actually threaten someone, the law is open-ended enough so that an individual could face criminal charges if another person became frightened seeing an openly carried knife and called the police. While the state shows little or no interest in enforcing this drastic interpretation, knife owners should recall that it is legally possible, in theory at least.

Free from preemption, many Washington towns and counties impose their own, additional limits on knives. Seattle bans concealed carry of any knife with a blade longer than 3.5”, Westport bans all concealed carry except “ordinary pocket knives,” and Redmond outlaws carrying a knife with a blade 3” long or longer at any location selling liquor. With dozens of separate codes in force, knife owners should exercise considerable caution when moving around the state with knives in their possession.

Resources and Further Reading