Tennessee knife laws can be difficult to understand, due to the legislature’s vague language and the Court’s reluctance to offer definitions of the terms used in the statutes. This article will track down the law and explain it with clear language that makes sense to everyone.
What is Legal to Own
- It is legal to own a Bowie knife
- It is legal to own a dirk, dagger, or other stabbing knife
- It is legal to own a disguised knife such as in a belt buckle or lipstick
- It is legal to own a stiletto
It may be legal to own a butterfly knife, however, one should check with an attorney first, as Tennessee’s definition of a switchblade could include a butterfly knife. Courts in most states would call a butterfly knife one that opens by “gravity or inertia”, which is how Tennessee defines a switchblade knife. However, other Courts have viewed butterfly knives, not as automatic or gravity knives, but as a type of pocketknife. As of June 2013, Tennessee’s Courts have yet to weigh in.
What is Illegal to Own
Tennessee Code § 39-17-1302 makes it illegal to own a switchblade knife or any other implement for the infliction of serious bodily injury or death, which has no common lawful purpose.
Restrictions on Carry
- It is illegal to open or conceal carry a switchblade
- It is illegal to open or conceal carry any knife with a blade exceeding four inches in length, with the intent to go armed.
Definitions of Various Types of Knives
Tennessee statute defines a knife as any bladed hand instrument that is capable of inflicting serious bodily injury or death by cutting or stabbing a person with the instrument. Switchblade is defined as any knife with a blade that opens automatically by hand pressure applied to a button or other device in the handle or by operation of gravity or inertia. No other knives are defined by Tennessee statute or case law. Butterfly knives are mentioned in several Appellate and Supreme Court cases in Tennessee; however, the Court does not offer any type of definition for a butterfly knife.
Intent to go Armed Defined
Tennessee statutes do not define “intent to go armed”, however the phrase has been the subject of several appeals. As early as 1889, the Supreme Court of Tennessee recognized, in Moorefield v. State, that carrying a pistol to and from a hunting trip, was not intending to go armed. In 1957, in the case of Hill v. State, the Tennessee Supreme Court stated, “We gather the purpose of going armed from the facts of each particular case.” In 1976, the Court of Criminal Appeals followed the Hill decision, in Cole V. State, holding that the necessary intent to support a conviction for carrying a weapon, the intent to go armed, may be proven by the circumstances surrounding the carrying of the weapon. The Court also stated that the mere carrying of a weapon did not deprive a person of the right to presumed innocent. In 2002, in State v. Neely, the jury found that Mr. Neely was guilty of possession of an illegal knife with the intent to go armed, after a knife was found in his car, which contained various items of personal property. While Mr. Neely argued that the knife was simply kept in his car, along with other items he owned, the jury found that because Mr. Neely had recently threatened his girlfriend, he could have been carrying the knife in order to make good on his threats. The Court, agreeing with the jury, upheld the conviction.
Defenses to Unlawful Possession or Carry
It is a defense to unlawful possession or carry of a knife if the possession or carrying of the knife was:
- Incident to a lawful hunting, trapping, fishing, camping, sport shooting, or other lawful activity
- Incident to using the weapon in a manner reasonably related to a lawful dramatic performance or scientific research
- Incident to displaying the weapon in a public museum or exhibition
- In the person’s own home, property, or place of business
Certain government employees may also have a defense to the unlawful carry or possession of a weapon.
Penalties for Unlawful Possession or Carry
A first offense of unlawful possession or carry of a knife is a Class C Misdemeanor, which carries a jail sentence of up to 30 days, and a fine of not more than five hundred dollars ($500). A second offense is a Class B Misdemeanor, which carries a jail sentence of up to six (6) months and a fine of not more than five hundred dollars ($500).
Conclusion on Tennessee Knife Law
It is illegal to own or carry (either openly or concealed) a switchblade knife.
It is illegal to carry any knife with a blade longer than 4 inches, with the intent to go armed. It is, however, legal to open or conceal carry any legal knife without the intent to go armed, such as for hunting, fishing, work, or any other lawful purpose.
- Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-1302 (2013)
- Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-1307 (2013)
- Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-1308 (2013)
- Moorefield v. State, 73 Tenn. 348, (1880 Tenn.)
- Hill v. State, 298 S.W.2d 799 (1957)
- Cole v. State, 539 S.W.2d 46 (Tenn. Crim. App. 1976)
- State v. Neely, No. E2001-02243-CCA-R3-CD, Tenn. Crim. App.
- Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-111 (2013)