Federal Switchblade Law

This article is intended to demystify the US federal laws that govern switchblades. In my travels over the past several decades I have noted that nearly everyone has some of kind of misunderstanding of how these laws work, and what they actually apply to. So to make life easier for all of us, I'm going to spell it all out in plain English.

First thing to explain is that these laws are from the US national government. They cover the entire United States and all of its non-state territories. However, like many federal laws there are matters that are not addressed within them, which means that such matters are left to the individual states and local jurisdictions to govern (or not govern).

The specific laws themselves are from Title 15, Chapter 29 of the United States Code (U.S.C.) and consist of five sections:

  • § 1241. Definitions
  • § 1242. Introduction, manufacture for introduction, transportation or distribution in interstate commerce; penalty
  • § 1243. Manufacture, sale, or possession within specific jurisdictions; penalty
  • § 1244. Exceptions
  • § 1245. Ballistic knives

Let's break them down by section

§ 1241.

The first section, titled "Definitions" sets out the meaning of certain terms that are used throughout the rest of the chapter. The first term, “interstate commerce,” if of crucial importance to understanding this entire set of laws because it greatly limits the scope of what these laws apply to. In short, “interstate commerce” means commerce (buying, selling and trading) between any of 50 US states, Washington DC, any of the US Territories (e.g. Guam or American Samoa), and "any place outside thereof," referring to all foreign countries. In other words, this means this term applies to selling, buying and trading between states, between a state and a territory, between a state or territory and a foreign country (i.e. importing) and so on. It does not refer to buying, selling or trading within the same state or territory.

A switchblade is defined as "any knife having a blade which opens automatically—
(1) by hand pressure applied to a button or other device in the handle of the knife, or
(2) by operation of inertia, gravity, or both. "

The use of the phrase "in the handle" is notable, because if the knife has a spring-operated blade, but no device that actuates it that is located in the handle, this definition does not apply (e.g. so-called Assisted Opening Knives). The other (2) definition is meant to apply to gravity knives (which are rather obscure) and butterfly knives, though the vague nature of this line's phrasing leaves some room for interpretation that I cannot elaborate on as it is too complicated.

§ 1242.

"Whoever knowingly introduces, or manufactures for introduction, into interstate commerce, or transports or distributes in interstate commerce, any switchblade knife, shall be fined not more than $2,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both."

Arguably one of the most important parts of this chapter, several key elements of this section require explanation. First, it is notable that this law only prohibits introducing, manufacturing, transporting or distributing switchblades if doing so is part of a business transaction and that transaction crosses over state or territory lines, or the knives are coming from a foreign country. That's all it does. It has no effect on selling withing the same state, no effect on carry, and no effect on possession alone.

§ 1243.

"Whoever, within any Territory or possession of the United States, within Indian country (as defined in section 1151 of title 18), or within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States (as defined in section 7 of title 18), manufactures, sells, or possesses any switchblade knife, shall be fined not more than $2,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both. "

This section has very limited applicability to most US residents, but it indirectly generates a great deal of confusion with regards to the exceptions section (§ 1244). In essence it prohibits the mere possession of a switchblade in areas of the United States that are not part of the 50 states or Washington D.C. Examples are territories like Puerto Rico, Guam, Northern Marianas, U. S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa, federally-run Native American reservations, and certain maritime situations such as Navy vessels or government-owned aircraft.

For people living in one of the 50 U.S. states or Washington D.C., this section has no effect.

§ 1244.

This portion of the law contains all the exceptions to the restrictions. It should be noted that some of these exceptions are only applicable to 1242 (interstate commerce), and some only apply to 1243 (possession in non-state territories). I'll break them down one at a time:

(1) any common carrier or contract carrier, with respect to any switchblade knife shipped, transported, or delivered for shipment in interstate commerce in the ordinary course of business;

This section only applies to 1242. It's purpose is to exempt the Postal Service, UPS, FedEx or any other professional delivery service from being guilty of violating the law since they are simply the messenger and often unaware of the contents of what they carry.

(2) the manufacture, sale, transportation, distribution, possession, or introduction into interstate commerce, of switchblade knives pursuant to contract with the Armed Forces;

This section makes it legal for switchblade manufacturers and sellers to sell to the military, but only if it's done in an official, sanctioned contract. This is frequently misinterpreted as allowing any active duty member of the military to buy a switchblade from out of of state or from foreign countries, when in fact it does no such thing. It should be noted that despite common rumors, this exception does not apply to police officers at all.

(3) the Armed Forces or any member or employee thereof acting in the performance of his duty;

Makes it legal for members of the military to distribute switchblades over state lines to other members of the military in accordance with normal equipment issuance (1242), as well as exempts members of the military who are in a non-state US territory, Indian reservation, or special maritime jurisdiction from the restriction on possession in those areas (1243) so long as it is for official duty. Again, it does not give blanket permission for members of the military to acquire or carry switchblades, and has no effect on the laws of individual states.

(4) the possession, and transportation upon his person, of any switchblade knife with a blade three inches or less in length by any individual who has only one arm; or

A frequently misused exception, this part only applies to section 1243. It permits a civilian with a missing hand or arm to possess a switchblade if he or she is in a non-state US territory, Indian reservation, or special maritime jurisdiction. It does not effect anything in the main 50 states or DC, nor does it override the laws of any state. A person with one arm living in a state with a ban on possession of switchblades is still restricted like everyone else in the state.

(5) a knife that contains a spring, detent, or other mechanism designed to create a bias toward closure of the blade and that requires exertion applied to the blade by hand, wrist, or arm to overcome the bias toward closure to assist in opening the knife.

A recent addition, this exception was added primarily to distinguish true switchblades from so called "Assisted Opening" knives. This makes it legal to import or buy Assisted Opening knives over state lines without running afoul of federal law. However it should be noted that this has no effect on state laws.

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