As with many martial issues, it ultimately becomes a point of personal preference and comfort. I never carry a weapon, but my teacher carries a folding knife. In some states, everyone tucks a bowie in their belt. In others, you can incur fines and jail time just by walking from the store to your car with a newly purchased kitchen knife in hand. Kali and Silat practitioners are more likely to forget their cell phones than their blades when they leave home, but judoka and jujitsu men might not even have held a plastic training knife. Despite these variations between person, region, and style, there are still objective points to consider (some of which are incidentally personal, regional, and stylistic). In my experience, knife carrying should always return to three questions:
- What are local laws? (Part 1)
- What is your formal training? (Part 2)
- Why do you really want to carry? (Part 3)
WHAT ARE LOCAL LAWS?
A close friend of mine in law school would chastise me if I left out a disclaimer. I am not a lawyer. Most martial art teachers are not lawyers. For the final word on legal issues, talk to a police officer or a lawyer in your city. That said, Chicago is my home and I know enough of its laws to offer a relatively informed opinion; of course, don't trust your freedom and bank account with these legal observations. Do try and use them as a starting point for more extensive research.
Most cities allow knife-carrying within certain limits, even those with strict gun control ordinances (such as Chicago and Washington, D.C.). This makes blades a potentially attractive replacement for a concealed gun, or other more specialized self-defense tools. Chicago outlaws not only tasers and stun guns, but also telescoping force batons, knuckle dusters, and 'excessively strong' pepper sprays (such as hornet or bear spray). This leaves knives as the 'best' weapon you can still legally bring around town. But what are the laws governing your tool of choice? If you live in Chicago and want to arm yourself with a blade, you need to keep the following three laws in mind. I am going out of order to start with the single most important piece of knife-related legislation that Chicago martial artists must remember.
- Municipal Code of Chicago: Chapter 8-24
(f) No person shall carry concealed on or about his person a or dagger, dirk, stiletto, bowie knife, commando knife, any blade of which is released by a spring mechanism, including knives known as “switch- blades” or any other type or kind of knife, any blade of which is more than two and one-half inches in length, ordinary razor or other dangerous weapon except that no person 18 years of age or under shall carry concealed on or about his person, any knife, the blade of which is two inches in length or longer.
This is a longer legal article, but I have bolded the most important part. If you don't remember anything else from this entire post, at least try and remember the Chicago length requirements for a legally carried knife:
DO NOT CARRY A KNIFE THAT HAS A BLADE LONGER THAN 2.5 INCHES!
A police officer told me that the "blade" is measured from the base of the protruding metal to the tip. Anything inside the handle (the 'tang') does not count against your knife length. How strict are these requirements? It depends what you are doing with the knife. If you got pulled over for running a stop sign and had a 2.6 inch knife on you, it is unlikely you would face charges. If, however, you stab a robber with a 2.6 inch blade in a self-defense confrontation, you could well be charged with a weapons violation because of the magnitude of the offense. Even if you are justified in defending yourself, the law can still be against your weapon. To make matters worse, the robber might be able to pursue a civil suit against you for your illegal knife.
Ignorance is never a good criminal defense. If you can't be bothered to measure your knife, you are clearly not responsible enough to carry one in the first place. Now, finding a decent 2.5 inch knife is another matter entirely; most of the better brands are at least 3 inches. Cold Steel has some good options, although they might feel uncomfortable given their small size.
As a quick reference, American dollar bills are all 2.61 inches wide. Your knife needs to be just a hair shorter than the width of our currency, at least in Chicago.
- Municipal Code of Chicago: Chapter 8-24
(c) No person shall carry or possess any knife, the blade of which is released by a spring mechanism, including knives known as “switch-blades”, any blackjack, slingshot, sandclub, sandbag, metal knuckles or bludgeon
It's the standard bad boy weapon of the mid 20th Century. They are fun to play with and fun to show off. They are also wildly illegal in Chicago. NO SWITCHBLADES! What exactly is a "switchblade"? If it has a spring or other assisted release button/switch, it is a switchblade in the eyes of the police and the courts. It does not matter how the weapon looks. It only matter is it has a spring or a similar automatic release mechanism. Both blades below are switchblade, even though the one on the left appears to be a more traditional folding knife.
|BOTH ARE ILLEGAL|
|Legal! (As long as the blade isn't too long)|
If you are worried about losing speed without your West Side Story sidearm, just set aside a little time to practice drawing and flipping your folder. With training, and a good weapon, you can deploy a folding knife almost as fast as you can a switchblade. Some can do it faster. Remember, the weapon does not make the warrior.
- Municipal Code of Chicago: Chapter 8-24
(d) No person shall carry or possess with intent to use same unlawfully against another a dagger, dirk, billy, dangerous knife, razor, stiletto or other dangerous or deadly weapon.
I saw a UChicago student cut his hand with a butter knife in the cafeteria. Does that make it a 'dangerous knife'? Only in the hands of a UChi! But it goes to show that the courts and police will always have the final say on what qualifies as an illegal and dangerous weapon. This article gives some more specific guidelines that we need to follow if we are to carry a knife.
Daggers are long weapons that have both sharp edges and a sharp tip, specifically those made for combat. Dirks are thrusting weapons with sharpened tips made for stabbing, not slashing. A stiletto is similar to a dirk, except it is often thinner and lacking any edge; it is a long needle for Venetian style assassinations. As to a "billy", this refers to the standard truncheons and billy clubs of law enforcement, the bludgeoning crowd-control weapons of 1968 Chicago and 1950s Alabama. It is illegal to carry any of these in Chicago. Here are some samples below:
(Note on K-Bar: Not all K-Bars are technically daggers, because some have a flat "dead edge" near the grip. The weapon would still be highly illegal for street carrying, however)
|From left to right: K-Bar combat knife/dagger, Cold Steel Scottish Dirk, Tonfa style billy club, stiletto|
- Municipal Code of Chicago: Chapter 8-4 - Disorderly Conduct
A person commits disorderly conduct when he knowingly:
(h) Carries in a threatening or menacing manner, without authority of law, any pistol, revolver, dagger, razor, dangerous knife, stiletto, knuckles, slingshot, an object containing noxious or deleterious liquid, gas or substance or other dangerous weapon, or conceals said weapon on or about the person or vehicle; or
1) How will a group of young professionals going out for drinks in Wrigleyville view my weapon?
2) How will a mother and her two 5-year-old daughters riding the Red Line view my weapon?
3) How will an elderly couple on a walk through Lincoln Park view my weapon?
You get the idea. It does not matter if I personally think that carrying a Ka-Bar in my hip sheath is threatening or menacing. It matters only if an average, reasonable bystander thinks it is threatening or menacing. If any of those individuals above feels afraid, I am probably committing disorderly conduct.
Once you face that charge, it is probably rather uncomfortable to go before a jury or judge and argue your case. "C'mon your honor, it's just a big knife. I have no idea why that little girl and her mom were so scared!" For most average and reasonable citizens, especially those who have no martial experience, there are few things more threatening than a knife in a public space.
As a final note, the phrase "authority of law" does not reference some hidden statute that empowers well-trained martial artists to carry weapons. It means that police officers, soldiers, sheriffs, etc. have the State's authority to bring these tools to the job. We do not.
From a legal perspective, here are the qualifications your knife needs in order for you to avoid jail time in Chicago.
- The blade must be 2.5 inches or less.
- The knife cannot have an automatic, spring-powered release mechanism or button.
- Stick to folding knives and pocket knives.
- Open carry is just disorderly conduct.