Knife Laws in Wisconsin

The cool, farm-dotted Upper Midwestern state of Wisconsin, noted for its cheese and its abundant hunting and fishing, may be a state in transition to a more knife-friendly legal code, but as of mid-2015 still maintains a ban on switchblade knives, gravity knives, and butterfly knives (also known as balisong knives). Furthermore, the state’s concealed carry laws are vague enough to allow police and courts to decide whether or not a knife is illegal to carry concealed on an essentially case-by-case, wholly subjective basis.

Any legal knife can be open carried in Wisconsin, however. The state does not have a preemption law for knives (though one may possibly be passed in the near future), so local governments can and do create their own ordinances governing knife carrying within their city or county limits. Many of these ordinances forbid concealed carry of any knife with a blade longer than 3”, or with a blade 3” long or longer.

Legality of Knife Possession

Most types of knives are legal to own, buy, sell, and manufacture in Wisconsin, with a few notable exceptions. Chapter 941 of the Wisconsin Code, “Crimes Against Public Health and Safety,” includes section § 941.24, which forbids owning, carrying, making, buying, selling, or transporting switchblades, gravity knives, and balisong knives. The definition of these knives is broad enough so that any assisted-opening knife, as, for example, one with a thumb stud on the blade, probably qualifies as an illegal switchblade.

All other knives are legal to own and open carry, including pocket knives, KA-BAR knives, Bowie knives, hunting and fishing knives, machetes, swords, throwing stars, throwing knives, daggers, stilettos, and so forth. Some are legal to own but cannot be openly carried, due to the fact that their construction makes their blade automatically concealed; this category includes sword-canes and disguised knives such as belt-buckle blades.

Knife Length Limit

The Badger State does not impose blade length limits on knife ownership or open carry, though local governments within the state are free to do so.

Concealed Carry of Knives

It is illegal to carry a “dangerous weapon” concealed in Wisconsin, but no precise definition for such a weapon is given in the statutes. Whether a particular knife being carried concealed is a dangerous weapon or not is a matter left to the judgment of the police and, if an arrest is made and charges are filed, to the judge and jury.

The case law precedent of State v. Summer, 778 N.W.2d 173 (2009), shows how the definition is open to interpretation. The defendant, a woman with two knives in her purse, was found not guilty of carry a concealed dangerous weapon for the box cutter in her purse, but was found guilty for having a folding pocketknife with a 2.5” serrated blade as well. The serrations may have tipped the decision, but this recent case demonstrates how much the law’s interpretation is left to the judge’s opinion.

Concealed weapons permits are available to Wisconsin residents 21 years of age or older, with no violent criminal record, who completes an approved firearm course, submits to a criminal background check, and pays a fee. This permit is a true concealed weapons permit, allowing the bearer to lawfully carry any legal weapon – firearm, knife, or other – concealed. Wisconsin is a “shall issue” state, and the permit will be granted as long as the objective requirements are met. Section § 175.60 deals with this matter in detail.

Other Knife Law Considerations in Wisconsin

Many Wisconsin towns and cities ban concealed carry of knives with blades 3” long or longer, adding more clarity to the state law. A 2015 bill, Assembly Bill 142, is currently under consideration in the Badger State. Should it pass, it will lift the ban on switchblade knives, allow any legal knife to be carried concealed without a permit by non-felons, and create state-wide preemption repealing all local ordinances at variance with these laws. Should AB 142 pass, Wisconsin will rank among the knife-friendliest states of the Union.

Resources and Further Reading