Pocket Knife Restrictions in NYC

By Sally Brooks - Updated October 25, 2018
Men browsing pocketknives in display case in shop

If you’ve looked up NYC knife laws and found yourself confused about exactly what kinds of knives are legal and illegal, you are not alone. New York State outright bans the possession of any gravity knife, switchblade knife, pilum ballistic knife, cane sword or metal knuckle knife, and bans the possession of a dagger, dirk, stiletto, razor or any other dangerous knife if you also have the intent to use it unlawfully against another. Further, in New York City, there is an ordinance that allows only knives with a blade under four inches in length. The confusion comes from how each of these terms is defined and interpreted. The knife laws in New York state and the widespread enforcement of these laws in New York City have long been the subject of consternation for knife owners.

What Laws Pertain to Knives in New York State?

New York Penal Law Article 265 governs firearms and other dangerous weapons in the state, including knives. Under N.Y. Penal Law Sec. 265.01, among other weapons, it is a crime to possess a gravity knife, switchblade knife, pilum ballistic knife, metal knuckle knife or cane sword. This means that simply possessing these objects constitutes criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree.

N.Y. Penal Law Sec. 265.01 further states that it is illegal to possess any dagger, dangerous knife, dirk, razor or stiletto if you have the intent to use that weapon unlawfully against another person. However, note that, while intent is generally necessary for these five types of knives, the law makes it illegal for people under the age of 16 and non-U.S. citizens to possess any dangerous knife, regardless of intent.

In addition to New York state laws, a New York City ordinance makes it unlawful to carry a knife with a blade of four inches or more in any public place, street or park. Therefore, if you have a knife that is otherwise legal per New York Penal Law, but the blade is four inches or more, it is illegal to possess that knife in New York City.

New York law does not differentiate between concealed or unconcealed weapons, so the law applies equally, whether you have a banned knife clipped to your belt or have one concealed in a travel bag.

Types of Knives Banned Under NYC Knife Laws

New York Penal Law Sec. 265.00 provides definitions for the knives that are banned outright.

  1. Switchblade knife. A switchblade knife is defined as any knife that has a blade that opens automatically when hand pressure is applied to a button, spring or other device in the handle of the knife.
  2. Gravity knife. A gravity knife is defined in penal law as any knife with a blade that is released from the handle or sheath by force of gravity or the application of centrifugal force and then is locked in place by means of a button, spring, lever or other device. The gravity knife has been interpreted to mean any folding knife that can be opened with the flick of the wrist and can include pocket knives that are legally purchased from sporting goods or home improvement stores.
  3. Pilum ballistic knife. The pilum ballistic knife has a blade that can be projected from the handle by hand pressure applied to a button, lever, spring or any other device.
  4. Metal knuckle knife. Metal knuckle knife is a weapon that functions as both a set of plastic or metal knuckles as well as a knife when opened.
  5. Cane sword. A cane sword is a cane or swagger stick that has a concealed blade that can be used as a sword or stiletto.

The terms dirk, dagger and stiletto are not defined by the statute, but are generally understood to be somewhat interchangeable words for knives that have sharp edges on each side and a sharp point. A razor might refer to the type of blade found in a utility knife or box cutter.

What Constitutes a Dangerous Knife?

The term “dangerous knife” is not defined by statute but has been interpreted by New York courts as a knife that, in context, could be characterized as a weapon. The courts have found a knife “dangerous” where the knife was designed to be a weapon, it was a utensil that was converted into a weapon, or where a utilitarian knife, such as a steak knife, that, because of the context, was deemed dangerous. In the court case People vs. Richards, the Criminal Court of the City of New York issued an opinion in a case in which the defendant was arrested for carrying a knife he claimed was for his protection. The court determined that the defendant’s knife did not fall under any of the defined knife categories, and so needed to decide whether it could be considered a dangerous knife for purposes of the statute. Looking at previous case law, the court found that a knife that is not necessarily designed for combat might still be found dangerous when the reasons for possession and the behavior of the person who is carrying the knife show that it is meant to be a weapon. The court found, in that case, that because the defendant intended to use the knife to defend himself, if need be, that intent made the knife a “dangerous” knife under New York penal law.

What Does Possession With Intent Mean?

While possessing a gravity knife, switchblade knife, pilum ballistic knife, metal knuckle knife or cane sword is automatically illegal under New York state law, possessing a dagger, dangerous knife, dirk, razor or stiletto is only illegal if you also have the intent to use the knife unlawfully against another person. Therefore, it is not strictly illegal to simply possess these knives if you do not have the intent to use them against another person. However, N.Y. Penal Law Sec. 265.01 also states that possession of these kinds of knives is presumptive evidence of intent. That means that you are presumed to have intent if you possess a dagger, dangerous knife, dirk, razor or stiletto unless you can prove otherwise.

Potential Punishment for Possession of Banned Knives

Possession of a banned knife in New York is considered Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the Fourth Degree, which is a Class A misdemeanor. Class A misdemeanors carry a possible sentence of up to one year in jail, three years of probation and up to $1000 in fines. For offenders with previous convictions, the possible jail time can be much higher.

Knife Law Enforcement in New York City

The Legal Aid Society reviewed the 70,000 arrests for violations of N.Y. Penal Law Sec. 265 in New York City and found that more than two-thirds of those were for possession of a gravity knife. In New York City, police consider gravity knives to be any pocket knife that can open with the flick of a wrist, including pocket knives that are legally purchased at a sporting goods or home improvement stores, like Swiss Army knives and other common multi-tool utility knives. The gravity knife definition and enforcement has been repeatedly challenged in both the courts and through proposed legislation for being overly vague, but opponents have not succeeded in amending the law.

About the Author

Sally Brooks is a writer living in New York City with her chunky toddler and patient husband. She graduated magna cum laude from the University Cincinnati College of Law and her work has been featured in Jurist and the Temple Political and Civil Rights Law Review.

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