In Pennsylvania, brass knuckles fit the definition of prohibited offensive weapons under Section 908(c) of Title 18 on crimes and offenses. Brass knuckles are a type of metal knuckles, which a person cannot lawfully carry under Pennsylvania law. A blackjack, a weighted bludgeoning device, and a taser also meet the definition of an offensive weapon.
Penalties for Possessing Offensive or Illegal Weapons
A person commits a first-degree misdemeanor if they repair, sell, deal in, use or possess an offensive weapon in Pennsylvania. The penalty for a first-degree misdemeanor is between two and a half and five years' incarceration and a fine up to $10,000.
A person commits a second-degree felony in possessing or using an offensive weapon if they acted with the intent to commit a felony. The penalty for a second-degree felony is five to 10 years incarceration and a fine up to $25,000.
Defenses to Possessing Offensive Weapons
It is a defense to the charge of owning an offensive weapon that the defendant, or the person charged with the crime, possessed the weapon briefly because they found it or took it from an aggressor.
It is also a defense that the defendant possessed the weapon under circumstances that would negate their intent or the likelihood that they would use the weapon unlawfully.
Offensive Weapons in Pennsylvania
A person who makes, repairs, sells, deals in, uses or possesses a firearm for lawful purposes will not be charged with owning or possessing an offensive weapon. A person is allowed to own a weapon that is not on the list of offensive weapons stated in commonwealth of Pennsylvania statutes. The list of offensive weapons includes:
- Machine guns.
- Sawed-off shotguns with barrel less than 18 inches.
- Firearms specially made or specially adapted for concealment or silent discharge.
- Metal knuckles.
- Razors or cutting instruments that expose blades in an automatic way with a switch, push-button, spring mechanism or other device.
- Stun guns.
- Stun batons.
- Other electronic or electric weapons or implements to inflict serious bodily injury serving no common lawful purpose.
Local Laws on Offensive Weapons
A city can make it own laws that enhance penalties for possessing and using offensive weapons. The purpose of these laws is to enhance the penalties for certain offensive weapons in order to discourage their use within the city. For example, Philadelphia's municipal code states that certain weapons are contraband.
The list of offensive weapons includes weapons, ammunition, and accessories such as a rocket, a flamethrower or a semiautomatic pistol capable of accepting a detachable magazine with a shoulder stock of any configuration. A shoulder stock is the back portion of the gun that provides structural support.
At first, metal knuckles, blackjacks and tasers do not seem to make the city’s list; they are not explicitly mentioned. Yet the city code has a catchall category for “other weapon, device, accessory or ammunition designed or intended to cause injury or death to persons or damage to property for which no common lawful purposes exists.”
Penalties for Violation of Philadelphia Weapons Statutes
The city code also references Section 908(c) of Title 18 of Pennsylvania Statutes, which contains the list of offensive weapons that do include metal knuckles, blackjacks and tasers. This means that a person could face the enhanced penalty in Philadelphia for possession or use of metal knuckles, tasers and blackjacks.
A person violating this section of the city code is subject to up to 90 days' incarceration and a fine up to $300, in addition to the penalties for a first-degree misdemeanor or a second-degree felony.
Using Offensive Weapons in Self-Defense
Pennsylvania refers to self-defense as “use of force in self-protection.” A person is justified in using protective force when they believe it is immediately necessary to protect themselves against another person’s unlawful use of force.
A person may use that degree of force they believe is necessary to protect themselves against death or serious bodily injury. A person is not justified in using deadly force unless they believe such force is necessary to protect themselves against death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping or sexual intercourse compelled by force or threat.
Charges Possible Even if Actions Justified
Generally, a prosecutor may charge a person who uses an offensive weapon in self-defense with possession or use of the offensive weapon. This is true even if the person was justified in acting in self-defense.
A city may also penalize the person for possession or use of the offensive weapon even if the person was justified in acting in self-defense. As a result, an individual who defended themselves with an offensive weapon like brass knuckles can still face state and city penalties for possession and use of that weapon.
Pennsylvania Taser Law
Specifically, as to tasers, state law provides that a person may possess and use an electronic or electronic incapacitation device such as a taser in the exercise of reasonable force to defend themselves or their property.
The device must be labeled with, or accompanied by, clearly written instructions as to its use and the potential damages involved in its use. This rule does not apply to metal knuckles or blackjacks.
Liability of Manufacturers
A company that sells brass knuckles, other types of metal knuckles, or other weapons on Pennsylvania’s list of offensive weapons can issue a legal disclaimer regarding the use of its product. This means it is the buyer’s responsibility to obey all federal, state and local laws regarding the use of the product.
The seller of the product may disclaim that they have liability for the buyer’s arrest or damages if the buyer is arrested or charged for possession or use of the product.
Offensive Weapons in Schools
A public K-12 school district, a private K-12 school, and a community college or university can prohibit students, faculty, staff and guests from using certain weapons at school or on the grounds of school functions. For example, the school district of Philadelphia prohibits the possession of metal knuckles, striking instruments, including blackjacks and stun guns, and which could include tasers.
Students who violate school policies can face suspension or expulsion. Faculty and staff can face disciplinary measures, including termination, and visitors can be barred from future school events.
Pennsylvania State University also prohibits stun guns, striking instruments, including blackjacks and metal knuckles. A university student or employee who violates the prohibition may be suspended or dismissed from the school. Visitors may be subject to trespass charges.
- Pennsylvania Statutes: Title 18, Crimes and Offenses
- The School District of Philadelphia: Policy 218.1, Weapons
- Pennsylvania State University: Safety Policies, SY12 Weapons and Fireworks Regulations, Fireworks, and Paintball Devices
- The Philadelphia Code: Section 10-821b, Contraband Weapons, Accessories and Ammunition
Jessica Zimmer is a journalist and attorney based in northern California. She has practiced in a wide variety of fields, including criminal defense, property law, immigration, employment law, and family law.