Balisongs and The Law

One of the questions I am frequently asked is, "Is it legal to own/carry a balisong in the state of... or in the country of..."

The answer is usually, "I don't know."

First, let me make very clear that I am not a lawyer. The information I am presenting here is, as a lawyer would say, offered without recourse. (That's lawyer-talk for, "I have no idea what I'm talking about and, since I told you that, if it's wrong, you can't sue me.)

Here is a link to a very excellent discussion of knife and weapons laws published by the American Knife and Tool Institute.

What I can tell you is that here in the United States, we are not always as united as the name might suggest. The United States is a federal union of fifty states and, while united in some respects, each of those states remain substantially independent in many other ways. What's legal in one state is not necessarily legal in another. Laws can even vary from city to city.

Criminal law is one area where states remain substantially independent and where laws can differ dramatically among states.

As American has become more mobile, there has been a move to homologize some laws (traffic laws, for example). But many areas of law remain different from place to place.

Consider, for example, a car trip from Seattle, Washington, down Interstate Highway Five, through Oregon, and to San Diego, California. In Washington state, you should stop for red lights and may proceed on green lights. This is also true in Oregon and in California. Those laws are uniform from state to state. The speed limits will also be uniform from state to state. But, the fine for violating those speed limits will vary from state to state.

In Washington, you'll be paying a state sales tax on many of your purchases. In Oregon, there is no state sales tax on most items. While in Oregon, though, you'd better stock up on what you need, because when you cross into California, you'll find a state sales tax on many items again.

Washington residents pay a state sales tax, but no state income tax. Oregon residents pay state income tax, but no state sales tax on most items. California residents pay both.

The state tax you pay on the fuel you use on this imaginary car trip of ours will vary from state to state.

Speaking of fuel, when you initially get fuel in Washington, you'll probably have to operate the pump yourself. In Oregon, a trained and state-licensed fuel attendant will do that dangerous and environmentally-sensitive task for you. If your windshield is dirty, the attendant will wash it for you too; it's an Oregon state law. But, once you're in California, you'll be back pumping your own fuel and washing your own windshield again.

This variation of laws from city to city, from county to county, and from state to state makes figuring out what's legal for you very difficult.

It's not unusual at the gas stations here in Oregon to see someone hop out of a car with out-of-state plates and reach for the pump handle only to be intercepted by an attendant who has to explain to the visitor that it's actually illegal to pump your own gas in Oregon.

Unfortunately, the government does not have an "answer desk" where you can call to find out what is and what is not legal for you.

To make matters more confusing, when we talk about knives and balisongs, we're talking about weapons laws. Weapons law is one of the most obscure, vague and confusing parts of law.

Finally, when we talk about weapons law, we're talking about criminal law. Criminal law is not just a simple matter of what the law books say. What's legal and not legal is a matter of what legislator have written in the laws, how your state's Attorney General interprets those laws, how those laws have been applied by prosecutors, how those interpretations and applications have been decided by courts, and how those decisions have been reviewed by higher courts.

There are websites where you can go and look up the exact text of most state and federal laws in the US. Most American states have the text of their laws on their state websites now. You'll also find the text of your state's laws at larger public libraries. But, these sites and these books are not very useful because in matters such as the legality of balisongs, what the law books say is really just the beginning of the story.

I often hear people say, "I checked my state's laws and they don't even have the word balisong in 'em. So it must be legal for me to own one." This is a recipe for trouble.

Yes, in many states, the text of the law will not even use the terms "balisong" or "butterfly knife". If your state is like this, you may think that because the law doesn't even mention balisongs, it's ok for you to own and even carry one. But, your state's Attorney General may have a different opinion. He may think that a balisong is a form of switchblade or a form of "gravity knife". If your state outlaws switchblades (and most do), then you may end up in court where the prosecutor need only convince the jury that his application of the law is correct.

In most states, such a case has already happened. In some states, courts have decided that balisongs are indeed switchblades. Courts in other states have decided that they are not. In some states, courts have decided that balisongs are "gravity knives" which are also illegal in most states (this even though most balisong openings contain some element of a handle or blade moving up in defiance of gravity). In other states, courts have held that balisongs are not gravity knives.

Yes folks, a single word may have different meanings in different states. Now you know why lawyers go to law school for five years typically.

The results have been mixed. In one state, the term "switchblade" apparently includes balisongs, while in the neighboring state it does not. Here in Oregon, balisongs are considered switchblades. Fortunately, here in Oregon, it is legal to own and even overtly carry switchblades (including balisongs). On the other hand, just a few miles north in Washington State, the state law specifically mentions balisongs separately, not as switchblades. But both balisongs and switchblades are clearly NOT legal to own in Washington.

This makes no sense, I know. How can a word have one definition in one state and a totally contrary definition in another state? How can a balisong be a switchblade in one state and not in another? It's a manifestation of one of the key underpinnings of our American union, "State's Rights." And it's part of the American way.

Another common recipe for trouble is, "I asked a police officer and he said..." Well, police officers are great people and certainly mean well. But, their training in the law is typically only about forty classroom hours.

If you were to go to a large library and find a copy of your state's laws, it's typically a set of books occupying ten to twenty feet of shelf space. The US Code of Federal Regulations occupies about fifty feet of shelf space. And these are big books we're talking about. They use a small font and there's not a lot of pictures. And that's just the text of the laws. That's just the beginning. The case histories and court records you need to study to really determine what is and is not legal literally fill warehouses.

With maybe 40 hours of classroom training on the subject, a police officer's knowledge of the law is usually very shallow. The is especially true when you remember that that 40 hours includes criminal law, traffic law, domestic law, civil law, civil rights, everything, mostly state and local, but some federal too. With all that material to cover, you can bet that obscure topics like exotic knives don't get covered very throughly.

A lawyer goes to law school for four or five years. That's 3500-4500 classroom hours and as many hours more spent outside the classroom studying, reading, researching, and working on assignments.

Weapons law is a very obscure and very complicated area and few police officers really know it with any depth.

Furthermore, a police officer's opinion ultimately carries little if any legal weight. If you are arrested for carrying an illegal knive, "I asked a police officer and he said it was ok," is unlikely to get you off. The fact that one officer says that your knive is ok means only that that one officer is not going to arrest you at that time.

Yesterday, I made a free right turn on a red light after stopping. Nobody else was coming and the intersection was clear. I didn't notice until I was halfway through the turn that that intersection has a big sign saying "No Turn On Red." Oops. And, as luck would have it, there was an officer right behind me. I thought I would be fined for sure. He couldn't have missed my offense. But, he didn't stop me or anything. Now, if I do the same thing tomorrow, but this time the officer does stop me, what do you think would be the reply if I said, "I did the exact same thing yesterday and another officer saw me do it and didn't stop me?" The answer would be "Yesterday's officer made a mistake, but his mistake doesn't make today's turn legal."

Police officers can not change or make laws. What they can make is mistakes... and the officer's mistake may be your undoing.

The only way for you to know for sure what is legal for you in your community is to dig through the laws, the Attorney General's Opinion statements, and the court records. I'm sorry to have to say it, but to answer that question you're just gonna have to research the issue. If you know where to find all of those documents, how to thoroughly search them, how read them, how to follow references from one to the next, etc., then you can do this. But, if you're like most people, you probably don't know how to conduct such research. So, you'll just have to hire someone who does know how and have them do it for you.

It may seem a bit odd to have to hire someone to do such a thing for you. But what would you do if your television set broke? Could you read the circuit diagrams and component data sheets? Do you have all of the necessary test equipment? Could you figure out what was wrong and fix it? A few of you probably could. But, most of you would realize that fixing a television set is a complicated, technical undertaking requiring special training, special tools, special skills, and experience. Most of you would hire a professional to do it for you. Well, researching legal issues is a complex, technical undertaking too. It requires special training, special tools, special skills, and experience. Most of us will have to hire a professional if we want results we can trust.

Fortunately, you probably don't need a lawyer for this. A paralegal can handle such things easily and less expensively. But, even for someone skilled in this type of research and with all of the tools at hand, it's still hours of work and it will probably cost you a couple hundred dollars. That's the cost of getting an authoritative and reliable answer. Violating the law can cost you a lot more than a few hundred dollars.

I do not normally do this, but I am about to suggest a business that I have not tried myself. I recently saw an ad for this company,, which offers to have a lawyer answer simple legal questions for just $39.95. "Is it legal for me to own and/or carry concealed or overtly, a balisong or butterfly knife in City, State?" seems like a simple enough question and criminal law is one of the areas they offer. You might give this a try. In posing your question, be sure to adequately define "balisong" or "butterfly knife" so that they can give you the right answer. If you do try this, let me know how the service goes and if I should continue to suggest it.



"So," you may ask, "Why are weapons laws so vague?" If literally read, many states' weapons laws actually outlaw pencils and pens.

Many technical documents contain a "glossary", a section, containing careful definitions of important words used in the text. By including such a section, the author helps assure that the reader will read the same meaning out of the text that he wrote into it.

There's a glossary of sorts here on my website. I put this list of words together so that when people talk about balisongs, we can all use common terminology and better understand each other.

Laws, unfortunately, do not usually have a glossary. Often, laws do not define the words they use. For common words, I suppose that that's ok. But for uncommon words and for key words in the laws, this is frustrating to those of us trying to understand those laws and figure out what is and what is not legal.

Especially where weapons are concerned, Attorney Generals and prosecutors encourage legislators to write laws broadly so that they can apply them broadly. If they made a specific list of weapons which are illegal, criminals would just start carrying and using weapons that are not on the list. Eventually, the list would grow to thousands of pages. But, even a list that large could not list all of the various forms and variants of weapons that creative minds can think of.

And here us the rub of the problem: Legislators make lists of what can not be done. Designers figure out what can be done.

Legislation is essentially a defensive activity. It's about blocking. It's about saying "No".

Design is essentially an offensive activity. It's about figuring out a new way to attack a problem, fill a need, or satisfy a market. It's about saying "Yes."

If a basketball team plays nothing but defense, if they never even cross the center line away from their basket, if they concentrate exclusively on blocking their opponents' shots, the best they can hope for is a zero/zero draw. In fact, they'll probably loose the game. You see, if that team misses just one block, if the opposing team manages to make just one lucky shot, then the game is decided.

If all they try to do is block specific shots, then the legislators' game is lost too. As long as there's a need or a market desire for weapons for whatever reason, then every time the legislators illegalize some new weapon, the designers will come up with some new variation that skirts around the laws.

The legislators are playing pure defense.

Legislatures have seen this recently in attempts to ban "assault rifles." Every time the legislators try to define "assault rifle", the manufactures just come up with minor design tweaks that allow essentially the same guns to skirt around the new definitions. All these legislators have succeeded in doing is changing the cosmetic appearance of guns. If you believe that looks can kill, well, then, I suppose that this is a success. But, if you believe that the danger in guns is their ability to expel a projectile at high speed in a fairly predictable direction, then nothing important has changed.

So, legislators try to make the laws broad. In doing so, they end up making them vague. It's like giving that defense-only basketball team racquetball racquets to use. This would extend their reach and help them block more shots more easily. But, again, the other team needs only one lucky basket to win the game.

The only hope this defense-only team might have would be a rules-change allowing them to put a cover over their basket.

The conventional (non-balisong) one-hand-opening knives, those with thumb studs, those with a disk on the spine, those with holes in the blade, are all clever designs to fill a market need or a market desire for one-hand-openable knives despite restrictions on switchblades, gravity knives, and balisongs.

Historically, every time lawmakers have restricted some aspect of knife design, clever designers have come up with new designs that skirt around those new laws.

Offense always wins.

Over the years, prosecutors have learned that it's pretty easy to get a jury to convict someone for a weapons violation. Given the opportunity, juries eagerly expand the definitions of weapons because nobody likes the idea of violent criminals carrying dangerous weapons. If the law is broad enough, prosecutors find it easy to convince juries to make a little semantic stretch in order to convict a criminal. Most jurors want to convict criminals. So, prosecutors have urged legislators to make the laws broad, to give juries the latitude to make those stretches.

Basically, prosecutors have asked for racquetball racquets to widen their reach. The result is that just reading the laws often isn't enough to determine what is and what is not illegal. You have to look at the case histories and see just how far prosecutors have asked juries to stretch and just how willing those juries have been to make those stretches.



Right now, California's State lawmakers are busy broadening California's weapons laws to illegalize the majority of one-hand-openable knives.

Their efforts to restrict knife design with defensive legislation have still lost the game. Even with racquetball racquets, they haven't been able to block every shot. Now, they want to go all the way and put a cover over the basket.

Why? Because gang members are increasingly preferring one-hand-openable knives to guns.

Wait a minute. Isn't there a old saying... something about not bringing a knife to a gun fight? Why would these notoriously violent criminals suddenly switch from guns to knives?

Well, many of these gang members are to young to lawfully buy and own guns. And many of them have prior criminal records that prohibit them from lawfully buying and owning guns. But, lawfully or not, these gang members have been buying and owning guns for many years. They're not called "outlaws" for no reason. So, again, why the sudden switch to knives?

There are two answers: first, legislators (and, in many states, the public via ballot initiatives) have, recently, enacted stiff mandatory sentences for gun-related crimes, have added additional penalties for crimes committed with guns, have allowed more youth who commit violent crimes and especially gun-related crimes to be tried and sentenced as adults, have added additional penalties for previously convicted criminals who reoffend with a gun, and have added so-called "three strikes" laws. And, second, and, perhaps more importantly, police have started actually arresting these gang members for unlawful gun possession and prosecutors have started pursued these cases to conviction. Carrying a gun has just become to much of a risk for these gang members.

All of these laws which have been so effective against guns, which have, in fact, caused some of the most hardened violent criminals to turn away from guns, all of these laws regulate and restrict human behavior with guns, not gun design.

Through these laws, the legislators, police, and prosecutors have successfully caused these criminals to turn away from guns. They've done so without racquetball racquets and without covering the net. Why? Because they've started to play a little offense. They've attacked human behavior instead of trying to block specific gun designs.

Perhaps legislators should apply the same offensive approach to knives.

Regulating the design of knives is like trying to win a basketball game playing only defense. The best you can hope for is a zero/zero tie and you're usually gonna loose.

Instead, of blocking specific knife designs, why not attack human behavior with knives.



There are a few laws I can tell you about: