Could your gun or weapons collection make you a criminal?
By Scaringi & Scaringi P.C.
Recently, one of our attorneys came upon a photograph on Facebook. It was of a young man sitting in his truck and displaying a large assortment of brass knuckles. Some of the knuckles had blades attached, while others had various personalization marks.
The young man was smiling, obviously very proud of his possessions ─ and completely oblivious to the fact that he was committing a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to five years in prison.
That’s correct, gun and weapons collectors: Section 908 of the Pennsylvania Crimes Code states that it is illegal to possess, sell, make or repair certain “offensive weapons.” Of course, exceptions exist for legitimate law enforcement personnel and for those who possess the items solely as a rarity or for use in “dramatic performances.”
It’s not uncommon for a collector’s weapons zeal to turn into legal headaches after the collection captures the attention of law enforcement ─ usually after the person is accused of using a banned weapon to threaten or harm someone.
How serious are the potential consequences? Just having one of these banned weapons could bring not only up to five years in prison but a $10,000 fine.
Here’s a look at the kind of weapons for which mere ownership can get you into trouble.
Have weapon, be criminally charged
Illegal weapons are spelled out under the state’s criminal statutes:
“Any bomb, grenade, machine gun, sawed-off shotgun with a barrel less than 18 inches, firearm specially made or specially adapted for concealment or silent discharge, any blackjack, sandbag, metal knuckles, dagger, knife, razor or cutting instrument, the blade of which is exposed in an automatic way by switch, push-button, spring mechanism, or otherwise, any stun gun, stun baton, Taser or other electronic or electric weapon or other weapon or other implement for the infliction of serious bodily injury which serves no common lawful purpose.”
Of course, we all understand why the law prohibits people walking around with bombs or certain machine guns. But what about knuckles, stun guns, blackjacks and automatic knives, all of which may be available online or at a local store?
The key to these prohibitions is that the instruments serve “no common lawful purpose.”
Obviously, a 15-pound sandbag possesses a lawful purpose ─ i.e., preventing flooding or holding down signs or temporary fences. What this statute is referring to is smaller, lighter sandbags, often designed to be attached to a key chain. These are designed to hurt someone when filled with hard objects.
Similarly, blackjacks and metal knuckles have but one use: to cause serious bodily injury. Although often advertised as items of self-defense, these weapons lack a common lawful purpose that would justify their possession under state law.
Just because you can buy it doesn’t make it legal
The argument that “I bought it on the Internet, so it must be legal” won’t protect you in court. A recent Internet search found scores of websites offering prohibited weapons, some even proclaiming that the items are “100 percent legal.”
Not true. And such Internet proclamations to the contrary won’t mean a thing to the police officers, prosecutors and judges if you are charged with having an illegal weapon.
So don’t be fooled into thinking the blackjacks, cellphone look-a-like stun guns and “self-defense key chain knuckles” are legal.
Should you be found with these or similar items, the legal consequences will be far more costly than the item’s purchase price.
Don’t get stuck by an illegal knife
Anyone who has ever attended a large flea market has come across vendors selling all sorts of knives. But the same warning applies: Just because a knife is for sale doesn’t mean it’s legal.
When it comes to knives, the difference between legal and illegal can be a razor’s edge. Surprisingly, found to be legal in Pennsylvania was a folding knife with a 7-inch blade, purchased at a sporting goods store for hunting and fishing, even though it was being waved in a crowded room. Also legal were a 23-inch machete carried on a busy street and a 13-inch butcher knife carried while running up a crowded street and threatening to kill someone. (Of course, threatening to kill someone is a separate crime.)
The catch? None of these items had automatically exposed blades, otherwise known as switchblades. That’s right. In Pennsylvania there is no ban on the length of a blade you can carry, as long as it doesn’t have some kind of automatic opening mechanism.
Facebook weapons folly
So what about our brass knuckles-baring friend on Facebook? Will he be arrested and charged based on his social media photograph showing all those illegal knuckles?
The simple answer is that his arrest is highly unlikely, absent any other activity with his brass knuckles. While the statute imposes strict liability for the possession of these items, the bottom line is that police have a great deal of discretion in whether to prosecute someone for simple possession.
By contrast, a person who uses a blackjack and severely injures someone, even in self-defense, is much more likely to face arrest than a young woman who carries a “kitty head” metal knuckle on her key chain.
Still, it’s best to be careful and knowledgeable when purchasing any weapon, especially online or at a flea market.
Always remember: Just because you can buy it doesn’t make it legal.