Quick Legal Facts
The concealed carry law contains an exception for "an ordinary pocket knife." See discussion.
It is unlawful to sell or furnish a "bowie knife" or "dirk" to a minor.
Knives may not be possessed openly or concealed on school grounds.
At a Glance:
North Carolina law, § 14-269, restricts the concealed carry of any bowie knife, dirk, dagger, razor, or “other deadly weapon of like kind,” except when one is on his own premises. There is an “ordinary pocketknife” exception which does not extend to some of the location-based restrictions such as schools. Whether this exception creates a restriction on non-ordinary pocketknives and the definition thereof is uncertain. (See detailed discussion below on this topic).
14-269. Carrying concealed weapons
14-269.1. Confiscation and disposition of deadly weapons
14-269.2. Weapons on campus or other educational property
14.269.3 Carrying weapons into assemblies and establishments where alcoholic beverages are sold and consumed (does not apply to knives).
14-269.4. Weapons on certain State property and in courthouses
14-269.6. Possession and sale of spring-loaded projectile knives prohibited
14-277.2. Weapons at parades, etc., prohibited
It is unlawful for anyone, including police officers, to manufacture, sell, possess or carry any “ballistic knife.” There is a narrow exception whereby law enforcement officials may possess such knives for evidentiary or training purposes.
Open carry is lawful, for all knives. Concealed carry for any bowie knife, dirk, dagger, or razor is unlawful. It is uncertain whether non-ordinary pocketknives are similarly restricted. See discussion below. An exception allows concealed carry of weapons in general at state-owned rest areas, rest stops along the highways, and State-owned hunting and fishing reservations. § 14-269.4 (5)
Restrictions on Sale or Transfer:
It is unlawful to sell or furnish a “bowie knife” or “dirk” to a minor § 14-315. It is also unlawful to sell or transfer a ballistic knife to anyone.
Restrictions on Carry in Specific Locations/Circumstances:
It is unlawful to possess or carry, openly or concealed, any bowie knife, switchblade, dirk, dagger or other pointed or sharp-edged instrument on school property. It is also unlawful to cause, encourage, or aid any minor to do so. School property includes K through 12, trade schools, colleges, and universities. § 14-269.2 This same class of knives may not be possessed by spectators or persons participating in any parade, funeral procession, picket line, or demonstration upon any private health care facility or on public property.
It is lawful to possess an “ordinary” pocketknife in the State Capitol Building or the grounds thereof. All weapons are prohibited from the state Executive Mansion and most other government buildings to include court facilities. § 14-269.4
Carrying Concealed Weapons
Subpart (a) of § 14-269 describes the knives and other non-firearm weapons that may not be carried in a concealed manner. It provides:
It shall be unlawful for any person willfully and intentionally to carry concealed about his or her person any bowie knife, dirk, dagger, slung shot, loaded cane, metallic knuckles, razor, shuriken, stun gun, or other deadly weapon of like kind, except when the person is on the person’s own premises.
Statutory definitions are not provided for the enumerated knives namely, “bowie knife,” “dirk,” “dagger,” or “razor.” The appellate courts in North Carolina have not construed limits to the meaning of the listed types since the original statute was enacted in 1879 which included the same four enumerated knives. AKTI suggests that “bowie knife” and “dirk” are neither generally understood nor susceptible to a reasonable definition. See AKTI Approved Knife Definitions which are not binding in North Carolina.
Subpart (d) of § 14-269 is confusing. It reads:
This section does not apply to an ordinary pocket knife carried in a closed position. As used in this section, “ordinary pocket knife” means a small knife, designed for carrying in a pocket or purse, that has its cutting edge and point entirely enclosed by its handle, and that may not be opened by a throwing, explosive, or spring action.
This subpart states that the entire “section” – § 14-269 Carrying Concealed Weapons – does not apply to an “ordinary pocketknife. It then describes certain functions that differentiate “ordinary” from non-ordinary. It does not state that the non-ordinary knives are restricted or may not lawfully be carried concealed. The North Carolina Supreme Court has recently restated the rule that statutes creating criminal offenses must be strictly construed against the State. State v. Conley, 839 S.E.2d 805 (2020). There is no criminal offense regarding the general concealed carry of non-ordinary pocketknives unless it was created in § 14-269 (d)
Subpart § 14-269 (a), the prohibitory part of the conceal carry statute, lists only bowie knives, dirks, daggers, and razors as the cutting instruments that may not be lawfully carried concealed. A long-standing rule of statutory construction provides that general words that follow specific words in a list must be construed as referring to only the types of things identified by the specific words. In 14-269 (a) the general words “or other deadly weapon of like kind,” follow the specific words “bowie knife, dirk, dagger, slung shot, loaded cane, metallic knuckles, razor, shuriken, stun gun.” It is a criminal statute and as such must be strictly construed against the State. It is far from clear that non-ordinary pocketknives are in the same class with the specifically designated knives or various impact, ballistic, and electrical shock weapons as listed.
The only reported case involving subpart (d) – the ordinary pocketknife exception – arose from the issue of whether the knife in question was small enough. In Matter of Dale B, 385 S.E. 2d 521 (1989), a juvenile was adjudged delinquent for carrying a concealed knife under § 14-269 (a). The issue in the juvenile trial was whether the four and a half (4/1-2) inches overall length placed it outside of the “ordinary pocketknife” definition. The defendant was adjudged a delinquent and appealed.
The decision by the Court of Appeals shows that the court erroneously combined sub-part (d) into subpart (a). The opening paragraph reads:
The statute upon which the order of delinquency is based is N.C.Gen.Stat § 14-269(a), which provides:
Carrying Concealed Weapons. (a) It shall be unlawful for any person, except when on his own premises, willfully and intentionally to carry concealed about his person any bowie knife, dirk, dagger, slung shot, loaded cane, metallic knuckles, razor, shurikin, stun gun, pistol, gun or other deadly weapon of like kind. This section does not apply to an ordinary pocketknife carried in a closed position. As used in this section, “ordinary pocketknife” means a small knife, designed for carrying in a pocket or purse, which has its cutting edge and point entirely enclosed by its handle, and that may not be opened by a throwing, explosive or spring action.
The second sentence in the above quote which begins with “This section. . .” is subpart (d). Subpart (a) is devoid of any language prohibiting pocketknives and subpart (d) is devoid of language that states any pocketknives are unlawful. The Matter of Dale B decision is confusing if not misleading.
The statutory definition of “ordinary pocketknife” is also confusing and unconventional. It contains three elements:
- Designed for carrying in a purse or pocket;
- Cutting edge and point entirely enclosed by the handle;
- May not be opened by a throwing, explosive, or spring action.
The third element from the above definition is troubling because the distinction is based on what someone may be able to perform rather than how the knife is designed to be used and opened. A federal court in Cracco v. Vance, 376 F.Supp.3d 304 (2019) held that a New York “gravity knife” prohibition was unconstitutionally vague because the function-based “wrist flick test”:
There has long been disagreement in the state of New York over how to define and when to prosecute an individual for possession of a gravity knife. Under the Penal Law, possession of a gravity knife is illegal per se, but a gravity knife is defined by function and not design. A knife is not illegal because it is designed to open by the force of gravity and lock into place; the knife is illegal when it actually opens by the force of gravity and locks into place by means of a procedure used by the District Attorney’s office to identify a gravity knife, called the “wrist flick test.”
Because the wrist flick test is a functional one, it is difficult if not impossible for a person who wishes to possess a folding knife to determine whether or not the knife is illegal. For example, a customer might attempt, but fail at applying the wrist flick test on a common folding knife she wishes to purchase at a store in New York and purchase the knife believing it is permissible because she was unable to get the knife to lock into place. Yet that same customer’s consistent use of the knife might loosen a screw over time, making it capable of flicking into locked position when the wrist flick test is applied. Or, a police officer who is more adept than an ordinary customer at conducting the wrist flick test could succeed in getting the knife to lock into place in the store, and the knife could be illegal at the time of purchase without the customer realizing. Or, one police officer who is less adept at the wrist flick test could test out the knife at the time of purchase and fail to flick it open, leading the customer to believe it is legal, even though a second police officer who is more adept at the wrist flick test might succeed at getting it to lock into place the very next day, and could arrest the customer for illegal possession.
“May not be opened by throwing” as a part of the “ordinary pocketknife” definition is ambiguous. It could be understood to refer to the act of propelling or casting away the knife. If it refers to a wrist flick motion, then the reasoning of the Cracco v. Vance case per the above quote is precisely on point. Whatever is intended by the use of the words may be opened by throwing would vary among individuals. That someone may be able to open a pocketknife by a throwing/flicking movement is not the same as designed to be opened by throwing or flicking.
The dexterity difference among individuals applies to the “may not be opened by spring action” aspect well. Moreover “spring action” is vague and indefinite. When compared with the definition for “switchblade knife” in § 14-269.2. Weapons on campus or other educational property this difference is compelling:
Switchblade knife. –A knife containing a blade that opens automatically by the release of a spring or a similar contrivance.
The adverb “automatically” indicates moving or operating mechanically or by itself when a spring is released. If this is how the North Carolina Legislature defines a “switchblade knife,” what type of knife are we to understand is described in the § 14-269 (d) definition?
Most folding knives, including traditional slip joint designs, incorporate a spring which is a factor in opening the knife. (See Understanding Bias Toward Closure and Knife Mechanisms on this website). A common type of utility knife requires that a spring-loaded slide be depressed – arguably spring action – when the blade extends and retracts. The U.S. Supreme Court has stated that which “renders a statute vague is not the possibility that it will sometimes be difficult to determine whether the incriminating fact it establishes has been proved; but rather the indeterminacy of precisely what that fact is.” United States v. Williams, 553 U.S. 285 (2008).
Concealed About the Person-Vehicles
Although the caption of § 14-269 refers to “carrying,” it is not necessary that the weapon is on the person, but rather about the person and close enough for ready access. For persons occupying a motor vehicle, a handgun under the driver’s seat is sufficiently close. A weapon out of immediate reach of the driver is generally not considered “concealed about the person.” In the case of State v Soles, 662 S.E.2d 564 (2008), the North Carolina Supreme Court addressed the issue of proximity of the weapon. The defendant, a convicted felon, was driving a van when stopped by a law enforcement officer who found a loaded handgun concealed in a backpack in the rear of the van. The defendant was charged and convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm, and for carrying a concealed weapon. The Court noted that there was no evidence indicating that the driver had ready access to the handgun and reversed the concealed weapon conviction.
This same reasoning and standard would apply to a knife. Essentially, concealed about the person means hidden from the view of others in such a way that it may be quickly used if prompted by a violent motive. State v Hill, 741 S.E.2d 911 (2013).
Pocket Clip Carry
An issue with most concealed carry prohibitions is to what extent the item must be visible. There is, unfortunately very little guidance from the statute itself, or the courts in North Carolina on this point. Whether pocket clip carry is exposure such that the knife will not be considered concealed is a question we are often asked, but which is dependent on the facts of each case and can only be answered by a North Carolina jury.
State-Owned Highway Rest Stops § 14-269.4 (5)
Across the country, rest stops along the Interstate highway network have been attractive locations where criminals can prey upon vulnerable travelers. The North Carolina legislature has wisely allowed people to better protect themselves and to discourage criminals by allowing possession of weapons, openly or concealed, at state-owned rest areas and rest stops along the highways. The allowance of concealed carry discourages those who might waylay by creating the uncertainty that random victims might be armed. It is somewhat the opposite of a gun-free zone /weapon-free zone where a criminal has little fear of armed opposition.
The Affirmative Defense
The existence of an affirmative defense as provided in subpart (b1) of § 14-269, may explain the scarcity of appellate level reported cases in North Carolina on the interpretation of the “ordinary pocket knife,” or degrees of concealment as mentioned above. Successful use of the defense may have eliminated the need for appellate review where concealment is the only criminality. Sub-part (b1) provides a defense to one prosecuted under § 14-269, the concealed carry statute if:
(1) The weapon was not a firearm;
(2) The defendant was engaged in, or on the way to or from, an activity in which he legitimately used the weapon;
(3) The defendant possessed the weapon for that legitimate use; and
(4) The defendant did not use or attempt to use the weapon for an illegal purpose.
The burden of proving this defense is on the defendant.
Items (1) through (4) are conjunctive, meaning all must be true, and the burden of proving each of them is upon the defendant. Subpart (b1) does not mean that one cannot be charged with a criminal violation if items (1) through (4) are true. It means that if one is charged and can prove at trial the truth of the requisite items, he has established a defense to the charge. That is why it is referred to as an affirmative defense.
Law Enforcement – Military
There are numerous exceptions to § 14-269 set forth at subpart (b):
(b) This prohibition shall not apply to the following persons:
(1) Officers and enlisted personnel of the Armed Forces of the United States when in discharge of their official duties as such and acting under orders requiring them to carry arms and weapons;
(2) Civil and law enforcement officers of the United States;
(3) Officers and soldiers of the militia and the National Guard when called into actual service;
(4) Officers of the State, or of any county, city, town, or company police agency charged with the execution of the laws of the State, when acting in the discharge of their official duties;
There are additional qualified or limited exceptions for state or local employees or officers of the judicial system including law enforcement and corrections officers and off duty law enforcement and probation officers at subpart (b) (5)-(9).
It is a Class 2 misdemeanor to violate the restriction § 14-269 in subpart (a) by carrying a concealed bowie knife, dirk, dagger, or razor. The maximum first violation punishment is a fine in an amount of up to $1,000 and up to 60 days jail time. Violations of the location/circumstance prohibitions are Class 1 misdemeanors punishable by a fine deemed appropriate by the judge and up to 120 days jail time for first-time offenders.
14-269.1 requires that upon conviction under the concealed carry prohibition statute that the weapon be “confiscated and disposed of.” The presiding judge may select from among several options, none of which allow the return of the weapon to the defendant.
14-415.12 (a)(3) provides that upon a conviction, the individual becomes ineligible to apply for Concealed Carry Handgun Permit during a 3-year period beginning on the date of conviction. If the defendant holds a permit at the time of conviction it may be revoked by the sheriff of the county that issued the permit.
Given the possible constitutional issues as well as the statutory affirmative defense as outlined above, we suggest that an individual charged under § 14-269 (a) for a knife seek legal assistance.
Updated August 26, 2021, by Daniel C. Lawson