Maryland Knife Laws

*DRAFT*
The state of Maryland has a complicated set of laws relating to firearms, but the laws on virtually all other weapons are relatively straightforward. When it comes to knives and other edged weapons, the state only has three statutory laws. Direct links are provided below. The rest of the article will be a detailed explanation of how these laws affect people in the state, with references to either the statute or established case law this assertion is drawn from.

Before I start, there is an important caveat: This is state law. Counties and cities are permitted to make laws that impose tighter restrictions on knives if they so choose, and they cannot make laws that are more relaxed than state law. I am human and have not had the time to read literally every municipal code and ordinance in the state, but I have read a lot of them and can at the very least say they seem to be rare in Maryland. The only ones of note I have come across are for the City of Baltimore, and Ocean City. Another thing to keep in mind is that court houses, airports, psychiatric hospitals, prisons and federal buildings are separate matter entirely, and may ban all knives if they choose to.

The Statutes

Md. CRIMINAL LAW Code Ann. Section 4-101: The concealed weapon law for everything other than handguns.

Md. CRIMINAL LAW Code Ann. Section 4-102: Knives on K-12 school property

Md. CRIMINAL LAW Code Ann. Section 4-105: Selling switchblades and ballistic knives

How the law applies to knives by common type

First and foremost, there are no blade length or size restrictions on edged weapons in any part of state law. And the law hasn't really changed in decades, so any person claiming a blade length restriction is or was on the books is either thinking of a local ordinance, or is just plain wrong.

Folding knives (non-spring loaded aka manual folders)

Folding knives enjoy a great deal of freedom under state law. Classed as "penknives" under 4-101, the are explicitly exempt from that particular law, permitting them to be carried concealed or openly. While the word "penknife" is not defined in the statute itself, it has a fascinating and relatively robust case law history over the past 40 years.

  • A “penknife” is any knife with a blade that folds into the handle, no matter how long the blade is. (Mackall, 1978)
  • The presence of a locking mechanism doesn’t change the fact that the knife is still a penknife. (In re Daryl L., 1985)
  • Carried with its blade open or closed doesn’t matter. (Bacon, 1991)
  • The burden is on the State, not the defendant, to prove that a knife isn’t a “penknife.” (Anderson, 1992)
  • Using the penknife to commit another crime doesn't change that it is still a penknife. (Thornton, 2003)
  • Police officers who fail to understand any of the above and arrest someone anyway are liable under federal law for false arrest, and can be sued into oblivion. (Sorrell v. McGuigan, 4th Cir. 2002)

Assisted-opening folding knives (aka Spring-assisted)

Under state law, assisting-opening knives are considered "penknives," just like manual folders above, and are thus exempt from 4-101, making most concealed and open carry legal. However, there is a great deal of confusion over these knives among the general public and police officers. What makes an assisted opener different from a true switchblade is that they lack an actual "switch" located in the handle, and instead require some part of the blade itself to be partially opened from a closed position before the spring mechanism takes over. The statutory language regarding "in the handle" as a defining feature of a true switchblade is found in both state law (4-105) and federal law, and has been upheld as not applying to assisted-openers. As a further clarification, during the Freddie Gray case, who was carrying an assisted-opening knife, State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby made a statement in a public news conference that "The knife was not a switchblade, and is lawful under Maryland law."

Fixed blade knives

Non-folding or "fixed blade" knives are an unusual grey area in the law, but an important factor to remember is that the law only applies if they're concealed or carried with intent to injure unlawfully. Carrying openly without illegal intent is completely legal, and case law has established that being sheathed or otherwise just having the handle visible is not concealed. See concealment below for further clarification.

The carry statute, 4-101, only uses the terms "dirk knife" and "bowie knife" and provides no definition. However, these are provided merely as examples of "weapons" due to the statute's use of the term "includes." In practice, the interpretation of a fixed blade knife being a "dangerous weapon" is in the eyes of the police officer during the encounter, and most generally err on the side of presuming a fixed blade knife is such a weapon. This leaves the courts to decide on the illegality. In practice, charges are typically dismissed if the knife is particularly small, is of a utilitarian design, and there is no evidence of the carrier having unlawful intentions with the knife.

Swords, machetes, spears, polearms and other large edged weapons.

Openly carrying any kind of large edged weapon is legal under state law, including if it is sheathed. 4-101 doesn't mention them per se, but even if the courts considered any of these items to be "dangerous weapons," remember that 4-101 only makes it illegal for a weapon to be carried concealed or with unlawful intent to injure.

See "Threat display" below for details on brandishing.

Throwing stars and knives

Items called "star knives" are named and defined by 4-101 and refer to what are commonly called ninja stars, throwing stars, or shuriken (hira shuriken/shaken, if you're true student of Japanese martial arts). Like all other weapons that are directly named, they are illegal to carry concealed or with unlawful intent to injure, but legal if carried openly.

Not part of Maryland law gives any special mention to knives designed for throwing or other thrown sharp weapons, like darts or spikes. Throwing knives are simply fixed blade knives for purposes of the law.

Butterfly knives (aka Balisongs)

Because butterfly knives fold into the handle when not in use, they are considered "penknives" under state law, and are thus exempt from 4-101. This means they can be carried concealed. This is notoriously misunderstood by some police officers and has led to several incidents where charges end up being dropped and disciplinary action is taken against those officers.

Switchblades

True automatic knives which open via some kind of switch or slider in the handle are considered "dangerous weapons" explicitly in 4-101, and so are illegal to carry concealed or with unlawful intent to injure, but legal if carried openly. How one carries a switchblade openly is a matter of debate and as of this writing, no definitive answer exists anywhere. No published court opinions cover this matter directly yet.

It is illegal to sell, barter, or offer for sale or barter, a switchblade under 4-105. See "Sale and barter" below for important clarifications on this.

Ballistic knives

Ballistic or "shooting knives" which fire their blade as a projectile using a spring are also mentioned under 4-105. They are subject to the exact same restrictions as switchblades above.

How the law applies based on usage and/or intent

Concealment

The statutes don't provide a clear definition of what "concealed" means, but the matter was ruled on during two major court cases in the state.

The first was Shipley v. State, 1966, which ruled the following:

By a recognized test a weapon is concealed if it is so situated as not to be discernible by ordinary observation by those near enough to see it if it were not concealed who would come into contact with the possessor in the usual associations of life, but absolute invisibility is not required;

Shipley was in turn quoted and further clarified much later in Polk v State, 2007:

In the case of a knife, moreover, its handle is most assuredly a part of the weapon, just as the handle of a revolver or a rifle is a part of the weapon. A knife is not ipso facto concealed because its blade is in its sheath, any more than a six-gun is concealed because its barrel is in the holster or a sword concealed because its blade is in the scabbard. Though drawing an inference, perhaps, the reasonable observer knows when he has seen a knife, a six-gun, or a sword. Concealment "should be made of sterner stuff."

For clarification, Polk involved a case of a fixed blade knife laying in the open near on the dashboard of a car, and was observed by an officer standing outside the car at the time. The courts ruled that this is not concealed under 4-101, and Polk was acquitted.

Sale and barter

Currently the law only restricts the sale of true switchblades and ballistic knives.

Under 4-105, they are illegal for a person sell, barter, or offer for sale or barter, within the state. This law has no exceptions, meaning that they cannot be sold even to police, firefighters or members of the military. However, this statute is very poorly enforced, as switchblades can still sometimes be found at brick-and-mortar stores in Frederick and St. Leonard, or at knife shows, often with labels stuck to them saying "Police and military only." Even so, such businesses are absolutely breaking the law, and simply haven't been caught by a police officer that wants to make an issue of it.

Sale of switchblades is also regulated by federal law, but only when they are sold over state lines. While the buyer is not per se breaking any laws, the restriction means that the vast majority of knife merchants located in other states will not sell switchblades to a Maryland mailing address. This functionally means in order for a Maryland resident to legally obtain a switchblade in a way where the full transaction complies with all laws, they would have to physically travel to a state where sale of switchblades is legal, make the purchase, and then bring the knife home with them when they return.

Minors

Contrary to popular belief, there is very little regulation on purchase and carry of knives for minors that don't already apply to adults. There is no law restricting selling knives to minors; rather, this is just a popular business practice.

4-101 contains a somewhat bizarre and obviously very dated provision, where it is illegal for a minor to carry any "dangerous weapon" (that is, fixed blades, large edged weapons, throwing stars, or switchblades) openly or concealed, if all of the following are true:

  1. They are in Anne Arundel County, Baltimore County, Caroline County, Cecil County, Harford County, Kent County, Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, St. Mary’s County, Talbot County, Washington County, or Worcester County.
  2. It is 1 hour after sunset and 1 hour before sunrise
  3. They are not "on a bona fide hunting trip; or engaged in or on the way to or returning from a bona fide trap shoot, sport shooting event, or any organized civic or military activity."

4-102 makes bringing any knife to a K-12 school illegal. However, an curious case in 1997, In Re Melanie H ruled that the ban is not applicable to all knives, and only applies when the knife is adapted for use or capable of being used as a deadly weapon. The court listed several examples of lawful use of knives in schools, such as food preparation, biology dissection, woodworking, grounds-keeping, maintenance, and the use of fake knives for theatrical productions. In this case, the defendant had a butter knife stored in her locker that she was using as a makeshift prybar, not as a weapon, and so she was acquitted.

Colleges are not subject to 4-102, and instead follow 4-101 and there own campus policy, if any.

Threat display

Brandishing any kind of weapon is of course subject to circumstances. 4-101 prohibits carrying any weapon "openly with the intent or purpose of injuring an individual in an unlawful manner." This provision is somewhat redundant with common law definitions of assault, which is any sort of aggressive action that puts another in fear of immediate bodily harm, though it extends it somewhat to including carrying a weapon where there is evidence the carrier was plotting to use it for some kind of criminal attack. Harrod v. State, 1985, established that the state must prove the defendant did all of the following:

1) carried a dangerous weapon, 2) carried the weapon openly, and 3) openly carried the weapon while harboring the intent to injure a person.

This provision has sparse case law surrounding it, and in most cases it seems to be a "throwaway" charge on at individuals who have committed an actual criminal battery on another person, not merely planned to. In these cases, the carry charge tends to be dropped, as Chilcoat v. State (2004) ruled that merely holding a weapon during an assault is not a violation of this particular provision.

Besides 4-101, threatening another person with any weapon or even doing so unarmed can still violate certain common law offenses, liked the aforementioned assault, robbery, kidnapping, stalking, or extortion, depending on what the apparent motive is for doing so.

However, brandishing a weapon in self-defense to dissuade an attacker from starting or continuing an attack is legal, and is even explicitly mentioned by the presiding judge as a lawful action with a knife in the case of In re Julianna B, 2008, and in Underwood v State, 2016.

Self-defense

Generally self-defense is a complex topic in law, and cannot possibly be covered in all its details here. One of the most important things to convey is that self-defense is highly circumstantial, and subject to all evidence arising in a case, not just the weapon used.

However, 4-101 does contain an interesting exception to it's main restriction on carry:

(b) This section does not prohibit the following individuals from carrying a weapon:

(4) an individual who carries the weapon as a reasonable precaution against apprehended danger

This language is intended to legalize carrying an otherwise illegal non-firearm weapon, either concealed or openly with intent to injure, if it is done for purposes of self-defense. However, the statute further states it is entirely up the courts if the carry was actually "reasonable" based on the circumstances of the case.

To date I have been unable to locate relevant case law that addresses what courts would consider "reasonable." The closest I could find is an unreported opinion from the Court of Special Appeals, Underwood v State (2016). In it, the defendant unsuccessfully claimed this after brandishing a large kitchen knife against a crowd of people who were acting hostile toward her. The court was unconvinced that self-defense was her only motive, as she continued brandishing it and shouting obscenities at the crowd even after police officers arrived and were in control of the situation, that she refused to put it down when told to by police, and that she threw it at the crowd when officers approached her, even if it didn't hit anyone.

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