Friday, February 14, 2014

What Kinds of Weapons Can I Legally Possess in California?

The laws regarding weapons in California are (like most of our laws), complicated, nuanced, counter-intuitive and not entirely rational.  We have specific rules to govern all sorts of weapons, including some you've probably never even heard of (what the hell is a "sandclub"?).

Today, I want to talk specifically about knives, striking weapons (like clubs and batons), martial arts weapons, and a few other favorites.  I'll reserve firearms for another day because guns probably deserve their own post. 

For the sake of easily understanding how all the laws on this subject work together, I've created my own handy 4-tier classification system.  This is an over-simplified glance at a few common weapons and the restrictions regarding their possession and use.  Since I invented this chart, you won't find it in any law book.  Don't cite to this chart in court or when you're dealing with police.  Nobody will know what you're talking about if you argue that your folding knife is a "Class-4 pocket knife" and not a "Class-2 switchblade".  The chart is just a simple way to wrap your head around a complicated and poorly-organized series of laws.

My 4 tiers are as follows:

-Class 1:  Weapons that are illegal to own, possess, manufacture, import, sell, loan, give away, offer for sale, etc.  Put simply, these weapons are ILLEGAL in California for any purpose.  You could be arrested just for having them in your own home for self-defense (with a few exceptions).  
  • Any weapon that is disguised or not immediately recognizable as a weapon (any type of knife that is designed to look like an air gauge, lipstick case, writing pen, walking cane, belt buckle, hair brush, etc.)
  • Any type of hardened knuckles (wooden, metal or composite / plastic)
  • Any type of billy club, blackjack, sap, sandbag, sandclub, sap or slungshot (this is not a typo.  A "slungshot", also called a "monkey fist", is a weighted ball on a rope).  Courts have determined that "billy club" includes any type of bat, stick, club or baton if it's intended use is a weapon, even for home defense.  Wait, that can't be right.  But it is.  Keeping a baseball bat under your bed as a weapon for home defense is arguably illegal in California.  That's right, a loaded shotgun under the bed = legal.  Baseball bat under the bed = illegal.  Of course, it would be virtually impossible for police to enforce this absurd law unless the bat were used to commit some sort of crime.  In the absence of some other criminal activity, I would argue that the 2nd Amendment's Right to Keep & Bear Arms trumps California's nonsensical rule against club-type weapons in the home for self-defense.  I've never heard of a law-abiding person being prosecuted for possession of a baseball bat in his own home. 
  • Class 1 also includes "nunchaku" (nunchucks), throwing stars and other "martial arts-type" weapons, with exceptions for martial arts schools and instructors.  

-Class 2:  Weapons that may be owned or possessed at home, but may not be carried in public or within the passenger area of any vehicle.  Class 2 weapons may be manufactured and / or imported into the state, but may not be sold, loaned, transferred or given away in California.
  • Switchblades and butterfly knives with blades longer than 2 inches fall within this class -- they may be owned and possessed at home, but not in public or in your car.  You may not sell them, loan them to a friend, give them away, or transfer them to any other person.  

-Class 3:  Weapons that may be carried openly upon the person or within the passenger area of a vehicle, but may not be concealed upon the person.  
  • Any dirk or dagger.  "Dirk" and "dagger" are both synonymous terms for stabbing weapons. This includes anything with a fixed blade, capable of being used to inflict death or serious injury by stabbing.  Folding knifes don't count, no matter how big they are, as long as the blade is not extended and locked into place while concealed.  Section 20200 of the California Penal Code reads, "A knife carried in a sheath that is worn openly suspended from the waist of the wearer is not concealed within the meaning of [this code]".  
  • When it comes to knives, size really doesn't matter in California.  A few local codes prohibit concealed knives of various lengths, but the state Penal Code makes no distinction between giant knives and tiny ones.  If the knife folds, it may be carried concealed, even if the blade is a foot long.  If the blade is fixed, it may NOT be worn concealed, even if the blade is only 3 inches.  And there is no maximum length for blades that are worn openly.  That means swords are legal, but small neck knives are not.  I didn't make up these rules.  

-Class 4:  Weapons that may be carried and concealed upon the person, subject to some restrictions.  Generally, law-abiding adults may possess weapons in this category for self-defense.  Felons, addicts, minors, people on probation, and people with certain misdemeanor convictions may be prohibited from carrying even class-4 weapons.  Class-4 weapons include:
  • Tear gas / pepper spray
  • Stun guns
  • Folding knifes, as long as the blade is not open and locked into place while concealed.

There are many possible defenses to weapons charges in California.  Often, illegal weapons are discovered by police during illegal searches of your property.  If a search is performed without your permission, without probable cause and without a warrant, there may be grounds to suppress anything discovered as a result of that search.  Only a qualified criminal defense attorney can tell you whether or not you might have a defense based on an illegal search or a violation of your right to privacy.  

Even if you are found to be in possession of an item that fits the legal description of a prohibited weapon, you might have a compelling argument that the item itself is not actually a "weapon".  If it's an antique, an heirloom, a movie prop, a piece of art, or if the possessor has some innocent explanation for the item (i.e. grandpa brought it home from the war, etc.), then the item might not be a "weapon" within the meaning of the law.  For example, a baseball bat could be used to play baseball or it could be used to break the knees of a rival bookie.  If a person is found in possession of a baseball bat, a baseball glove, a bucket of baseballs and a pair of baseball cleats, then the bat itself is clearly a piece of sporting equipment and not a weapon.  Of course, baseball bats may be used to legally play baseball in California.  On the other hand, if a person is found with a baseball bat behind the seat of his car, with no other sporting goods in the vehicle, he's going to be arrested on suspicion of carrying an illegal baton.  Keep in mind also that "self defense" is not considered to be an "innocent explanation", and it is not a defense if you are charged with possessing an illegal weapon. 

If you or a loved one is accused of possessing an illegal weapon in California, call our office for a free attorney consultation.  (714) 449-3335.  Ask for John. 

For more information visit our website.  Orange County Weapons Attorney.

Thanks for reading.  


  1. Hi, I enjoyed your blog post on illegal weapons in California. I would be very interested in an expansion of this post to address air travel to other states.

    I am a black belt in karate living in California. I have a photo ID showing that I am advanced practitioner and belong to the international association. I practice at a school, but don’t run that school.

    In two weeks I will be traveling to Albuquerque NM for a karate seminar. The host school just announced last night that the seminar will include classes on sai, a pair of traditional defensive weapons, sword-like, each about 15 inches long. They come to a point but are not sharp. Here is an image:

    Are items such as sai allowed into checked luggage? And what are the rules in other states, such as New Mexico, for possession and transport of such weapons?

    If you are not inclined to update your very useful blog post, I am sure that readers would be interested even in a pointer to relevant information.

    Thanks for any insight you can provide.

  2. Thanks for reading, Gail.

    I'm not licensed to practice law in New Mexico, so I don't want to give you bad advice that might get you into trouble out there.

    You should post that question on They have a free forum where you can ask questions to attorneys around the country. You'll probably get 5 responses within an hour.

    Good luck at your seminar.

  3. This is stupid! CA bans keeping baseball bats as "weapons"!? What if that's all you have and you had no intention of using it as a weapon!? And even so, how are we supposed to defend ourselves then!? "Buy a gun!?" No one is obligated to purchase a firearm and firearms are NOT the solution!? Don't get me wrong, I do like guns and would like to own one, but the fact that it's okay to have a loaded firearm next to you but not a baseball bat is absurd. We have the right to defend ourselves the best we can in OUR OWN OBLIGATIONS. No innocent people should be treated like a criminal for just trying to defend themselves PERIOD!

    1. What is worse is that owning a gun isn't even really a right in California. Unlike other states you can be denied if they don't think you 'need' one.

    2. RJ, you're half right. California is a "may issue" state with respect to issuance of licenses to carry concealed weapons. That means your local sheriff may exercise discretion in deciding whether or not to issue a CCW license to an individual applicant, based on that applicant's "need".

      Individuals do not, however, need to show any "good cause" to purchase firearms in California. The 2nd Amendment still applies here, and your right to keep and to bear arms cannot be denied simply because someone thinks you don't "need" them.

  4. Brandon, I agree that the laws regarding weapons in California are a little absurd. That's the point I was trying to make with this post. Thanks for reading.

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  8. I wonder if efforts have been made to change these laws, and introduce sane ones.

    1. Unfortunately, the trend has gone the opposite direction in California. Statutory laws against weapons get less and less rational every year. Most of the relief has come from the courts, not the legislature.

    2. Imagine this! About 20 years ago when my Dad was about 65 years old, he was punched in the face at a car dealership while waiting in line inside of his vehicle for the service department to open. The person who punched him was a young guy who thought he could cut the line and get in front of my Dad. When my Dad said some thing to the guy, he approached my Dads car and gave him a black eye. My Dad got out of the car with his car club telling the guy to back off. He never struck the guy but the police were called and my Dad was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon. He didn't even touch the guy. Luckily, the judge at the Malibu court house saw what a respectable citizen my Dad was and found that the guy who initially assaulted my Dad was a liar and a punk. So yes, no matter what, you will be arrested if your weapon of defense is illegal in your state! Especially California (Gee! a car club)

    3. Glad to hear everything worked out for your dad in the end. Sounds like a stressful, expensive, frustrating, unnecessary experience.

  9. Tennis racquets as self defense weapon?

  10. Jim, check out the article that I recently wrote about the "innocent use" defense.

    If the racquet's intended use is a weapon, then it's illegal. Of course, that would be hard for the DA to prove since tennis racquets obviously have a perfectly legal use (to play tennis).

    And if an innocent person was walking home from the park and he was forced to his tennis racquet in self-defense, I can't imagine any prosecutor on the planet would file charges. I'd be happy to defend the case, though.