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Resources for the Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) student, with a particular focus on the ars gladiatoris of Paulus Hector Mair.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Swordsmanship and the Law in New York

I was recently asked by a HEMA practitioner from Texas whether he would be able to continue his longsword training if he moved to New York City, given the City's strict weapon laws.

The short answer is "Yes, as long as you use common sense."

The long answer requires a detailed legal analysis by a licensed attorney. Incidentally, I am a licensed New York attorney, but for various reasons, I shall not provide specific legal advice here. I have, however, compiled the applicable laws below, with relevant passages highlighted and general commentary.

Let us begin with New York State law:

New York Penal Law Section 265.01.

A person is guilty of criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree when:

(2) He possesses any dagger, dangerous knife, dirk, razor, stiletto, . . . or any other dangerous or deadly instrument or weapon with intent to use the same unlawfully against another; or

(5) He possesses any dangerous or deadly weapon and is not a citizen of the United States...

Criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree is a class A misdemeanor.

As you can see, the Penal Code does not expressly prohibit a citizen from possessing "swords." However, the sole historical function of a sword is to kill the enemy. Therefore, a steel longsword (especially one that is sharpened) risks falling under the definition of a "dangerous or deadly instrument or weapon."

The Code states that mere possession of a dangerous or deadly weapon is presumptive evidence of "intent to use the same unlawfully against another" for purposes of Section 265.01, even if you have no illegal intentions:

New York Penal Law Section 265.15

(4) The possession by any person of any dagger, dirk, stiletto, dangerous knife or any other weapon, instrument, appliance or substance designed, made or adapted for use primarily as a weapon, is presumptive evidence of intent to use the same unlawfully against another.

New York City law imposes additional restrictions:

New York City Chap. 1 Public Safety 10-133

Possession of knives or instruments.

B. It shall be unlawful for any person to carry on his or her person or have in such person's possession, in any public place, street or park any knife which has a blade length of four inches or more.

C. It shall be unlawful for any person in a public place, street or park to wear outside of his or her clothing or carry in open view any knife with an exposed or unexposed blade unless such person is actually using such knife for a lawful purpose as set forth in subdivision D of this section.

D. The provisions of subdivisions B and C of this sections shall not apply to ... (5) any person displaying or in possession of a knife otherwise in violation of this section when such a knife (a) is being used for or transported immediately to or from a place where it is used for hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, picnicking or any employment, trade or occupation customarily requiring the use of such knife; or (b) is displayed or carried by a member of a theatrical group . . . to from or during a meeting, parade or other performance or practice for such event, which customarily requires the carrying of such knife or (c) is being transported directly to or from a place of purchase in such a manner as not to allow easy access to such knife while it is transported...

E. Violation of this section shall be an offense punishable by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars or by imprisonment not exceeding fifteen days or by both such fine and imprisonment.

In sum, it would be extremely unwise to practice test-cutting with sharpened steel longswords in the middle of Central Park. Wooden and nylon wasters, on the other hand, should be fine.

Steel blunts fall into a gray area. Are they "dangerous instruments"? Are they "knives"? The law doesn't say, but Penal Law Section 265.15 implies that there is a difference between an instrument designed "for use primarily as a weapon" and an instrument designed primarily for recreational use. One could certainly argue that the above laws do not apply to steel blunts because they are designed primarily for safe recreational use (not as weapons) and lack the physical characteristics of a "knife" (cutting edge, sharpened point). However, just because an argument exists does not mean that a police officer or a judge will agree with your reasoning.

This is where the legal analysis ends and common sense comes in:

Don't train with sharps in public. Don't open carry your training weapons on the street, on the subway or anywhere else besides your actual training location. Most importantly, be mindful of appearances; the public will be far less alarmed by "fencers" than by "martial artists," so wear fencing masks and clothing that the public will readily associate with fencing. If an NYPD officer asks what you are doing, tell him or her than you are historical fencers, and leave it at that. Spare the officer your stock lecture about the fascinating combat origins of HEMA and the various deadly applications of the longsword.

Feel free to contact me via my professional site for legal advice about your specific situation.

Legal disclaimer: I make no representation as to the accuracy of the information herein, and nothing in this post is to be construed as legal advice. Consult your attorney before training with weapons of any kind in New York.

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