A butterfly knife
A butterfly knife / Mathieu Wallerand at Pexels

Hawaii Legalizes Ownership, Open Carry of Butterfly Knives After Fighting Them in Court

Hawaii has changed its tune on butterfly knives and other bladed weapons.

Governor Josh Green (D.) signed Act 021 into law on Monday. The measure amends several of the state’s weapons regulations, including a repeal of its longstanding bans on the manufacture, sale, transfer, possession, and transportation of butterfly knives, switchblades, and other non-firearm weapons. It will also allow the open-carry of those weapons–though concealed carry remains illegal.

The law took immediate effect upon the Governor’s signature.

The legislation marks a significant policy reversal for leaders in the Aloha State. Before Monday, Hawaii’s attorneys vigorously defended the state’s decades-old ban on possessing butterfly knives against a Second Amendment lawsuit by arguing that they are uniquely dangerous and associated with criminality. A three-judge panel for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the ban as unconstitutional last August in Teter v. Lopez. However, the state appealed that decision, and the Ninth Circuit has agreed to review the case en banc.

Governor Green did not respond to a request for comment on his decision to sign the bill or its intended impact on the state’s ongoing lawsuit. Instead, his office directed The Reload to a written statement from the Hawaii Attorney General’s office claiming the new law “updates, clarifies, and modernizes a number of aspects of Hawaii’s weapons laws.”

“These are important regulations that protect public safety,” a spokesperson from the office said.

Attorney Alan Beck, who is helping to litigate the Teter case, called Act 21 a win because the old ban conflicted with the Supreme Court’s reading of the Second Amendment in 2022’s New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen.

“There is no reason to criminalize the ownership of a knife just because it has a second handle or a spring,” he told The Reload. “And it is contrary to Bruen to ban the carry of melee weapons which have been in common use since the Colonial Era.”

Hawaii officials, however, quickly moved to head off any future wins by Beck in the case. Just one day after Governor Green signed the measure, attorneys for the state filed a motion to have the Teter case dismissed as moot in the Ninth Circuit.

“In this litigation, Plaintiffs sought prospective declaratory and injunctive relief against the enforcement of Hawai’i’s butterfly-knife regulations to the extent that state law prevented them from “possess[ing] butterfly knives in their homes or . . . openly carry[ing] them in public,” the Tuesday filing reads. “Act 21 allows Plaintiffs to do precisely that. Because Act 21 is a legislative repeal of the challenged provisions, it ‘creates a presumption that the action is moot.'”

Other gun-rights advocates suggested the quick timing of the state’s law change and legal maneuvering could be the result of concerns with more than just knife policy. Kostas Moros, a gun rights attorney who handles cases in the Ninth Circuit, said in a social media post that the legalization effort was “very obviously” an effort to avoid a federal precedent that could threaten more consequential hardware bans related to things like “assault weapons” or magazines.

“They didn’t want to risk a conservative en banc panel draw that could reverse the eventual antigun ruling in Duncan, nor did they want to risk SCOTUS review in a case SCOTUS would find enticing (because butterfly knives are a low stakes way to make precedent),” he said.

Duncan is a case involving California’s ban on magazines capable of holding more than ten rounds. A federal judge struck down the ban as unconstitutional last September, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is currently deciding whether to overturn that decision on appeal.

Before the full Ninth Circuit decided to vacate and rehear the case, the panel decision in Teter was the first and only federal appeals court ruling to strike down a hardware ban since the Supreme Court handed down its Bruen decision. On the other hand, multiple federal circuit courts have issued opinions upholding bans on ammunition magazines and semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15. 

Beck acknowledged the state’s attempt to undermine the butterfly ban case. Still, he won’t drop the suit because, despite the change in law, concealed carrying the disputed knives is not allowed, and open carrying is not a realistic option.

“We will still continue our litigation because our clients are unable to concealed carry butterfly knives, and butterfly knives are designed to be carried in the pocket as they do not have a clip,” he said.

UPDATE 5-15-2024 8:45 PM EASTERN: This piece has been corrected to show a full panel of the Ninth Circuit is currently considering Duncan. 

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Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

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Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

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