Wisconsin knife laws (2023 update)

What are Wisconsin’s knife laws in 2023?  Our criminal defense lawyers explain:

Wisconsin’s knife laws might seem confusing.  Are butterfly knives legal? What about switchblades?  Does the length of the blade matter, and where do I start measuring it?  Finally, can I possess a concealed knife?

Over the last decade, new laws have slightly complicated the matter.  Possession is legal for switchblade, butterfly, bowie, ballistic, automatic and hidden knives.  Section 941.231 of the Wisconsin Statutes, titled carrying a concealed knife, makes it a crime for individuals convicted of felonies, subject to certain restraining orders, or subject to mental health commitments to possess knives that are dangerous weapons in a concealed fashion.  Anyone caught violating this law is subject to Class A misdemeanor penalties, including 9 months in jail, $10,000.00 in fines, or both.  While being a felon in possession of a firearm is a serious felony charge, being a felon in possession of a concealed knife is a serious misdemeanor charge but cannot result in a prison sentence.

Finally, if you’re charged with any sort of crime, hiring the right criminal defense attorney is important.  Not all criminal defense lawyers possess the capabilities to defend your case.  Some lawyers might be alone, or working out of their homes.  Others, such as the ones you’ll meet at Van Severen Law Office, are accompanied by a full lineup of experienced criminal defense attorneys and support staff.  While these things certainly aren’t required to properly defend a case, we believe that they help us to achieve better results for our clients.  Contact our firm at (414) 270-0202 to figure out how we can help and to schedule a free initial consultation.

Switchblades – Wis. Stat. 941.24 (old law)

One of the most common questions we encounter is whether switchblades in Wisconsin are legal.  A switchblade is a pocketknife with a sliding or pivoting blade contained in the handle, extended automatically by a spring activated by a button, level, or switch on the handle or bolster.  As we’ve already discussed, their possession in Wisconsin is legal, but the following discusses historical (outdated) law dealing with switchblades.

2015 Assembly Bill 142 rearranged Wisconsin law and repealed section 941.24 of the Wisconsin Statutes.  The old statute indicated:

(1) Whoever manufactures, sells or offers to sell, transports, purchases, possesses or goes armed with any knife having a blade which opens by pressing a button, spring or other device in the handle or by gravity or by a thrust or movement is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor.
(2) Within 30 days after April 16, 1959, such knives shall be surrendered to any peace officer.
Shortly before the enactment 2015 Assembly Bill 142, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals found that § 941.24 violated the constitutional right to bear arms in self defense when applied to a person who possessed a switchblade in his home. State v. Herrmann, 2015 WI App 97, 366 Wis.2d 312, 873 N.W.2d 257.

Wisconsin preemption laws regarding knives – Wis. Stat. 66.0409

Preemption is a legal doctrine that allows a higher level of government to limit or even eliminate the power of a lower level of government to regulate a specific issue.  Relevant to our discussion of knife laws in Wisconsin, no political subdivision, including (but not limited to) towns, villages, cities, or townships:

… may enact or enforce an ordinance or adopt a resolution that regulates the sale, purchase, purchase delay, transfer, ownership, use, keeping, possession, bearing, transportation, licensing, permitting, registration, or taxation of any knife or any firearm or part of a firearm, including ammunition and reloader components, unless the ordinance or resolution is the same as or similar to, and no more stringent than, a state statute.

In other words?  Counties, cities, villages, and towns cannot pass knife ordinances more strict than those at the state level.  They are preempted by state law.

The Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution indicates that federal law takes precedence over state and local law.  Cities are “creatures of the state” and therefore state law generally takes precedence over the laws of a local jurisdiction.  The impact of the preemption laws are that all Wisconsin communities have the same knife laws, and that there are no “local” ordinances or laws prohibiting the same freedom to possess a knife as we find at the state level.

A knife pictured in Wisconsin
In 2016, Wisconsin lawmakers decriminalized the possession of certain knives, consistent with the United States Constitution. Concealment of knives is illegal for certain individuals in the state, including felons, and those subject to mental health commitments or restraining orders.
If you’re charged with a crime in connection with a knife, contact Van Severen Law Office, S.C. at (414) 270-0202 for help.

Does the size of the blade matter?

Unsurprisingly, the media has incorrectly reported on this issue.  Here’s one such example, claiming that Wisconsin law limits blade length to 3 inches.  The linked article is repeatedly incorrect regarding knife law, and should not be relied upon for any purpose.

Wisconsin law does not mention length in determining the legality of possession of the knife.  Prior to preemption laws, certain municipalities (including Milwaukee) considered a blade over 3 inches to be a “weapon,” which resulted in various criminal charges depending on the situation.  Other communities throughout the state adopted similar positions.  This is no longer the case.

There are no longer any knife blade length limits enforceable by law in Wisconsin.  The size of the blade does not matter.  Considering all of this, our question in the introduction regarding “where to start measuring the blade” isn’t relevant either.

I’m a felon.  Am I prohibited from possessing and concealing all knives?

No.  Importantly, section 941.231 of the Wisconsin Statutes only prohibits felons from going armed with a concealed knife that “is a dangerous weapon.”  Not all knives are dangerous weapons.

Section 939.22(10) of the Wisconsin Statutes defines dangerous weapons:

(10) “Dangerous weapon” means … any device designed as a weapon and capable of producing death or great bodily harm; … or any other device or instrumentality which, in the manner it is used or intended to be used, is calculated or likely to produce death or great bodily harm.

This is likely where the previous 3 inch rules become important.  Is concealing a small boxcutter in your pocket enough to be charged with carrying a concealed knife?  No, not unless facts and circumstances surrounding the situation lead prosecutors to believe the defendant intended to use it (or did use it) as a dangerous weapon.  For example, if the defendant makes a statement (not a good idea) and indicates that the boxcutter was to be used in self-defense, there’s going to be a problem, and likely criminal charges.  But if it’s just a tool, and wasn’t held in a way to be used aggressively or defensively, it’s not a weapon.

But on the other end of the spectrum, does a 4 inch switchblade held in a concealed fashion count as a dangerous weapon?  Again, the circumstances matter, but this is likely closer to satisfying the definition of “dangerous weapon.”  Switchblades are not used as tools.  They’re usually possessed as weapons, and will likely be treated that way by law enforcement.

Why hire Van Severen Law Office, S.C. for help?

The criminal defense lawyers at Van Severen Law Office, S.C. are specialists.  While many other firms practice various forms of law, we focus only on one area.  The reason for this is simple: we want to be the best criminal defense lawyers in Wisconsin.  We want to achieve the very best results for our clients.  And we want to protect the Constitution and push back against encroachment by the government.  These things are only possible unless we dedicate 100% of our resources on representing individuals charged with violating laws throughout the state.

Knife laws in Wisconsin changed only a few years ago and may change again in the future.  Our update provided in this blog post applies to the law as it stands in 2023 and before.  While things might remain the same, they might also change.  The very best way to make sure you’re on top of things is to contact our firm for representation.  You can reach us 24/7 at (414) 270-0202.

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