Everyone who flips, carries, or owns a balisong has heard it all before. “You know those are illegal, right?” “You’d better not get caught with that” “Where’d you get that switchblade?”
How balisongs are classified and what their legal status is in different parts of the world can be complicated and is often misunderstood. Many people incorrectly believe that they are illegal throughout the USA, only to be found for sale at flea markets, military surplus stores, and the depths of the dark web.
Contrary to popular belief, butterfly knives are completely legal to own and carry in most US states. Furthermore, this style of knife is becoming more and more popular, evidenced by the numerous new models that have come to market over the last few years. The Kershaw Lucha was even BladeHQ’s top seller of 2020!
Despite the growing popularity of balisongs, they are still banned in some places, and it is extremely important to understand your local laws before carrying or purchasing one of these knives. Here we’ll take a look at where balisongs are legal, where they’re illegal, and why butterfly knives are illegal in some places in the USA.
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and none of this should be understood as legal advice or legally authoritative information.
How are Balisongs/Butterfly Knives Classified?
How butterfly knives are classified is a major factor in figuring out whether they’re legal in your area or not, and unfortunately they’re not classified the same way in all parts of the country. Some states have laws that explicitly mention butterfly knives, others classify them as “gravity knives”, and others as “switchblades”.
Gravity knives deploy their blades by using the force of gravity, allowing the knife to safely be opened with one hand. Switchblades are automatic knives that deploy the blade by activating a button, lever, or switch.
Although there is an argument to be made that butterfly knives could be classified as gravity knives, they do not open automatically and therefore are not switchblades, even if some states consider them to be.
Where are Balisongs/Butterfly Knives Illegal?
Are butterfly knives illegal? It depends where. Different states all have different knife laws, and certain counties and cities may even have additional restrictions on ownership and carry.
Not all states have laws that are clear-cut and easy to understand, but here is a general guide to the legality of owning and carrying balisongs in the US:
Note - Again, this information is not legally authoritative. This chart is compiled from data from knifeup.com, the legalBlade app, and various other sources. Some states have additional restrictions for minors, felons, blade length, carry in certain cities or jurisdictions, carry on certain grounds (such as schools and government buildings), and many states will consider an otherwise legal knife to be illegal if the person carrying it has criminal intent.
As you can see, butterfly knives are perfectly legal to own and carry in the majority of US states. Still, it is important to be aware of any local restrictions on ownership or carry that might exist in your area.
How to Legally Travel with Balisongs
Because butterfly knives may be legal in one area but illegal in another, it’s important to know the laws in all places you’ll be traveling to and through. That includes not only your point of origin and destination, but also any stops you’ll be visiting along the way.
Although we can’t go over every form of ground transportation here, some forms of public and private transportation might have some knife restrictions. Always make sure to check for any additional laws or rules that might apply to any busses or trains you might be taking during your travels.
If you’re driving, it’s a good idea to check on any relevant laws regarding storing knives in your vehicle, especially if you’re traveling through multiple states. Even if your origin and destination both have friendly laws related to butterfly knives, you don’t want to accidentally break any laws in areas you’re just passing through.
How to Fly with Butterfly Knives
Hopefully it goes without saying, but just in case - don’t try to board an airplane with a knife! If you want to fly with balisongs then putting them in your checked bag is the easiest option (unless you’d prefer to ship knives to your destination).
The most important thing to do if you have knives in your checked bag is to make sure they are stored safely and properly. TSA agents can and will remove items from your checked bag that could potentially cause harm or damage to a baggage handler or agent.
If your knives are closed and secured in a case, they should arrive at your destination in your checked bag just fine. If you have a knife loose in your bag - even if it’s latched and locked closed - TSA agents are likely to confiscate it because of the risk it poses by accidental deployment during handling.
Why Are Balisongs/Butterfly Knives Illegal?
Even though balisongs are only illegal in 3 out of the 50 US states, many people still incorrectly believe that they are outlawed in most parts of the country. There is no shortage of articles and videos created by people explaining why butterfly knives are illegal, despite the fact that for the most part, they aren’t.
Some states and countries do have bans on balisongs though, so the assumption that they are illegal is not completely unfounded. As to why butterfly knives are illegal in some places, there are several theories that you may come across, each having its own degree of likelihood.
Ultimately it is likely that there is not one singular reason why butterfly knives are illegal in some places, but rather a combination of several. Let’s take a look at some of the more popular theories you’ll come across that explain why balisongs have been outlawed.
Popular Explanations for why Balisongs are Illegal
- Concealment: The design of the butterfly knife makes for a very slim profile, allowing the blade to be concealed very easily.
- Speed and Ease of Deployment: Balisongs can be opened quickly and easily with one hand, contrasted with traditional folding knives like slip joints that often require two hands to deploy the blade.
- Portrayal in Media: Media and cinema almost exclusively depict balisongs as instruments of violence, creating a stigma that they are nothing more than deadly weapons.
- Potential use as a Threatening Weapon: The flashy manipulations used to open butterfly knives can be used to intimidate, demoralize, and frighten people.
- Connection to Violent Crimes: You’ll often hear that balisongs are preferred by street gangs during the execution of robberies and other violent crimes, and that outlawing this style of knife was done in an attempt to reduce crime and make it easier to arrest criminals.
- Potential for Self Harm, Public Safety: Another extremely prevalent theory is that a surge in popularity of balisongs led to a sharp rise in visits to hospital emergency rooms, since people would accidentally cut themselves while learning how to flip open their knife.
- Lawmakers Targeting Minority Groups: Although this is not commonly suggested, you may come across claims that butterfly knives were used more by minority groups, and that laws restricting balisongs were in some way connected with oppressing these communities.
A Closer Look at These Theories
So, are any/all of these reasons legit? Let’s take a closer look at each of the above to figure out if conventional wisdom is true, or if some of these are just old wives tales.
- Concealment: The slim design of most balisongs does indeed lend itself to easy concealment, however not much more than many other modern folding knives.
The Urban Trapper from Boker Plus, a folding knife with a profile just as slim as a butterfly knife
- Speed and Ease of Deployment: Although butterfly knives can be opened quite quickly, their speed of deployment is not faster than a fixed blade, automatic, or even many manual flippers. They can be deployed with ease, but take significantly more dexterity and practice to open quickly than many other types of pocket knives.
- Portrayal in Media: Stigma is likely one of the main contributing factors to balisong bans, and the media has certainly contributed heavily to this. Butterfly knives are used almost exclusively as weapons in movies and television, and most often by antagonists. In reality, balisongs are flipped for recreation, collected by enthusiasts, or used as any other knife would be used for normal cutting tasks.
- Potential use as a Threatening Weapon: Butterfly knives could certainly be used to threaten or intimidate a potential victim, but this could be said about any edged weapon or tool, including screwdrivers and hammers.
- Connection to Violent Crimes: I was unable to find any statistics or information that linked balisongs to violent crime other than rumors and personal anecdotes. In fact, most info you’ll come across on the subject suggests that the most common type of knives used in criminal activity are kitchen knives, which would make sense considering their ease of availability and variety of sizes.
- Potential for Self Harm, Public Safety: The story goes that tons of balisongs were imported into the US in the early to mid 80s, leading to an increase in popularity and a surge in visits to the ER as people cut themselves learning how to flip them like they saw in the movies. Although this story certainly sounds plausible, it’s difficult to find any actual data or reports to back this claim up. It’s not entirely clear if this is actually true, or merely a tall tale that’s been believed and repeated so often that it’s become indistinguishable from fact.
- Lawmakers Targeting Minority Groups: It’s undeniable that legislators have passed laws that either implicitly or explicitly target minority or marginalized groups, but there isn’t much evidence to support that this is the case when it comes to butterfly knives specifically.
Ultimately, even if butterfly knives are no more concealable or faster to deploy than other knives, have no correlation to violent crime, and have little or no impact on knife-related ER visits, any of these ideas could still be the reason why balisongs are illegal in some states and countries. Bills can easily become laws because of feelings and emotions rather than facts and statistics, but that doesn’t make them any less real or enforceable.
Despite the stigma that’s been associated with butterfly knives for the past few decades, these knives are once again seeing a boom in popularity and a change in perspective on their perceived danger.
A variety of factors have shifted the focus from balisongs being flashy bad-guy knives in action movies to being treated as a fully functional knife with endless fidget potential.
Companies like BRS have long promoted the hobby of flipping and balisong community, Squid Industries’ line of balisong trainers have made them accessible to people whose age or location would otherwise prohibit them from owning butterfly knives, competitions like those at Blade Show have highlighted and grown the competitive aspect of flipping, and social media platforms have allowed people from all over the world to share their collections, tricks, mods, and ideas.
And the good news is: there’s a good chance that balisongs are perfectly legal to own and carry where you live! If you are interested in picking up a balisong, check out our previous articles on some of the best knives to start with, the best trainers on the market, and some easy tricks to open the knife with some pizzazz!
And whether you’re new or old to the balisong world, don’t neglect your maintenance rountine. Make sure to keep your balisong well-oiled with some KPL Original or Heavy, and clean and prevent rust with KPL Knife Shield.
Don’t forget to use code BARKHANDLE at checkout for 10% off your order!
Sources and Additional Resources:
KnifeUp Knife Laws by State: https://knifeup.com/knife-laws/
Legal Blade App: https://kniferights.org/resources/legal-blade/
Balisong Collector Article: https://www.balisongcollector.com/laws.html
SHTF Blog Knife Laws by State: https://www.shtfblog.com/knife-laws-and-regulations-of-all-50-states/