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Are Butterfly Knives Illegal in California?

Are Butterfly Knives Illegal in California?

Butterfly knives, also known as balisongs, have a somewhat complicated legal status in California. While they are not completely banned, there are significant restrictions on possessing and carrying these knives that mean they are illegal in many situations. Let’s break down the laws and legal precedents regarding butterfly knives in California.

What is a Butterfly Knife?

A butterfly knife, also called a balisong knife, is a folding pocket knife that has a distinct handle design. The knife blade is concealed within grooves in the handle when closed. A latch holds the handles together when the blade is concealed. With a flick of the wrist, the handles can be fanned open to expose the blade.Butterfly knives are known by several other names including fan knives, batangas knives, and flip knives. They originated in the Philippines but became popular in the United States in the mid-20th century.The unique opening mechanism of the butterfly knife means it can be quickly deployed with one hand. This led to the knives becoming associated with gang culture and criminality. However, butterfly knives also have many legal recreational and utilitarian uses.

California Switchblade Laws

The reason butterfly knives have restricted legal status in California is because they fall under the definition of a “switchblade” in California criminal code.Specifically, California Penal Code Section 21510 states it is illegal to possess, carry, sell, transfer or manufacture switchblade knives with blades 2 inches or longer.This code section defines a switchblade as “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.”According to California case law, this definition includes butterfly knives. The reasoning is that butterfly knives can easily be flicked open with one hand and the latch does not provide enough of a safety mechanism to prevent them opening unintentionally.Therefore, under California criminal code, butterfly knives are treated the same as switchblades for the purposes of possession and carry restrictions.

Possession of Butterfly Knives in California

The good news for butterfly knife enthusiasts in California is that it is not illegal to merely possess a butterfly knife under state law. You can legally own butterfly knives and keep them at home or your place of business.However, Section 21510 does make it illegal to possess a butterfly knife with a blade over 2 inches:

  • In any public place or in plain view in a prohibited area such as a school.
  • Concealed on your person in public.
  • In your vehicle in public (even if concealed).

“In public” is defined as any area open or accessible to the general public, including public roads, parks, government buildings etc. Private property like your home is not considered a public area.So you can legally buy, own and collect butterfly knives over 2 inches long in California. But you cannot carry them concealed or openly on your person in any public place. If you transport them in a vehicle, they must be locked in a secure container out of plain sight.

Transferring or Selling Butterfly Knives

Section 21510 also makes it illegal to sell, lend or give butterfly knives with 2+ inch blades to anyone else in California. This applies to private sales between individuals who are not licensed knife dealers.However, it is legal to buy butterfly knives in California from a licensed knife retailer, dealer or manufacturer. You just can’t re-sell or give those knives to anyone else.This means it is legal to order butterfly knives online and have them shipped to your home in California by a licensed dealer. But you cannot legally sell your used butterfly knives to other collectors through something like eBay.

Exceptions for Members of Law Enforcement or Military

There is an exception to the butterfly knife restrictions under California Penal Code Section 21590 for members of law enforcement or armed forces.On-duty peace officers are exempt from the switchblade carry restrictions if the knives are authorized and within the scope of their duties. Members of the military in the performance of their duties are also exempt.

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2024-03-21
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Federal Switchblade Act

Along with state laws, there is also a federal law called the Switchblade Knife Act passed in 1958. This bans the manufacture, import, distribution, transportation and sale of switchblades across state lines.However, this federal law does not prohibit simple possession of switchblades. The burden of regulating possession and carry of switchblades is left to individual states.

Penalties for Criminal Possession of a Butterfly Knife

In California, possession of a butterfly knife in violation of Section 21510 is a misdemeanor offense.The potential penalties upon conviction include:

  • Up to 1 year in county jail
  • Fines up to $1,000

In many cases, a violation may result in probation rather than active jail time. But penalties can scale up to felony charges for repeat offenders or if the knife is used in a dangerous manner.

Recent Legal Challenges

California’s ban on butterfly knives has stood for decades. But in 2022, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a similar ban in Hawaii citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s evolving interpretation of the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms.The Ninth Circuit judges ruled that Hawaii’s complete ban on butterfly knives was unconstitutional because there was no historical precedent for banning possession of this type of folding pocket knife.It remains to be seen whether this precedent will be used to challenge California’s butterfly knife law. For now, the current statutes are still in effect. But it’s possible the laws may be loosened or overturned in the future depending on upcoming cases.

Responsible Ownership of Butterfly Knives

For those who wish to legally own butterfly knives in California, it is important to do so responsibly. Always keep them securely stored at home and never carry in prohibited areas. Be aware of all local knife laws if traveling within the state.While butterfly knives have many legal uses, be mindful of the public perception of these knives when using them in legal settings. Consider practicing safe operation at home rather than in public spaces where they could alarm others.With proper precautions, butterfly knife enthusiasts can enjoy their unique hobby while staying on the right side of the law in California. But until the laws evolve, they must carefully follow the regulations regarding possession, carry and transport.

Common Questions About Butterfly Knife Laws in California

Are butterfly knives completely illegal in California?

No, it is legal to own butterfly knives at home in California. However, you cannot carry them concealed or openly in public areas.

Can I buy a butterfly knife in California?

Yes, you can purchase butterfly knives from licensed dealers and have them shipped to your home address in California.

Is it illegal to sell used butterfly knives in California?

Yes, private party sales of used butterfly knives are prohibited under switchblade laws.

Can I keep a butterfly knife in my car in California?

No, it is illegal to transport a butterfly knife in your vehicle unless it is locked in a secure container out of sight.

What if I’m caught with a butterfly knife in public?

You could face misdemeanor charges punishable by fines and jail time. It’s best to leave butterfly knives at home.

Are there any exceptions for carrying butterfly knives?

Police, military, and other exempt professions may carry butterfly knives under certain conditions while performing official duties.

Can I take my butterfly knife camping or hiking?

No, state parks and forests are considered public areas where butterfly knife carry is prohibited. Leave them at home.

Are local butterfly knife laws the same as state laws?

Most California cities and counties follow the state criminal code. But check with local authorities to be sure.

What knife length limit applies to butterfly knives?

The 2-inch blade length limit applies to all prohibited switchblade knives under California law.So in summary – butterfly knives occupy murky legal territory in California. While not fully prohibited, you must be very careful to only possess, transport and use them in lawful settings. Consult a qualified lawyer if you have any doubts about the legality of owning or carrying butterfly knives in California.

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