Why Are Nunchucks Illegal but Not Guns?

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Nunchucks, also known as nunchakus, have been outlawed in several states across America as well as in countries around the world. At the same time, firearms remain legal in most of these places. This dichotomy often raises the question – why are nunchucks illegal but guns are not?


Nunchucks consist of two sticks connected by a short chain or rope. They originated as a farming tool used for threshing rice in Okinawa, Japan. Later adapted as a weapon by martial artists, nunchucks require great skill to wield effectively. Though they appear quite dangerous in the hands of a trained user, nunchucks are responsible for extremely few deaths or serious injuries.

Guns, on the other hand, are specifically designed as deadly weapons. Firearms take thousands of lives in homicides, suicides, and accidents every year in America alone. Yet in most states and countries, guns can be legally purchased by ordinary citizens.

So why the discrepancy? Why ban nunchucks but allow the sale of guns?

Why Were Nunchucks Banned in the First Place?

During the 1970s, nunchucks became associated with urban street gangs in New York City. Movies like Enter the Dragon starring Bruce Lee had recently popularized martial arts and weapons like nunchucks in American pop culture. Gangs adopted them to enhance their intimidating image.

The Perceived Threat of Nunchucks

In response to their use by gangs, New York state banned possession of nunchucks in 1974. The governor at the time referred to them as a “treacherous weapon” that enabled “swift and blinding blows”. Other states and countries followed suit due to the perceived danger of nunchucks.

Lawmakers feared nunchucks could cause grave harm or even death in untrained hands. Their flailing movements make them harder to control compared to many other weapons. Nunchucks can strike with immense force, break bones, and cause internal bleeding.

Validity of These Concerns

However, martial arts experts argue nunchucks demand great skill to utilize effectively in combat. It takes extensive training to gain control and aim the swinging sticks at an opponent. For amateur users, nunchucks are more likely to harm the wielder through self-inflicted blows.

In truth, throughout history nunchucks have very rarely caused death or serious injury compared to guns and knives. Even at the height of their use by gangs, nunchucks were responsible for only a tiny fraction of violent crimes in New York City.

The Second Amendment Protection for Guns

The biggest distinction that allows guns to remain legal in America is the Second Amendment. It states:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

This Constitutional right to bear arms has repeatedly defeated attempts to outlaw or severely restrict gun ownership in the United States.

Individual Right to Own Guns

For most of American history, the Supreme Court interpreted the Second Amendment as pertaining to state militias, not individual gun ownership. But in recent decades, the Court has shifted to an individual rights stance.

In the 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller, the Court definitively ruled the Second Amendment protects the right of individual citizens to possess firearms for traditionally lawful purposes like self-defense.

Strong Political Support for Gun Rights

This Constitutional protection is bolstered by tremendous political support for gun rights. The immense influence of pro-gun lobbies like the NRA has largely prevented meaningful gun control legislation at the federal level.

Without similar legal shelter, nunchucks have remained banned under the rational basis test. This means as long as the law has a legitimate government interest (public safety), it is upheld as constitutional.

Nunchucks Linked to “Urban Threat”

Another key factor is the racial undertones surrounding nunchucks bans. Though empirically no more dangerous than many legal weapons, nunchucks became associated with lower income minorities in urban areas during the 1970s and 80s.

Racial Bias in Bans

Some legal experts contend nunchucks bans were passed out of an implicit fear or bias toward urban black and Hispanic youth gangs who frequently used them. It is difficult to imagine an iconic rural “white” weapon like hunting rifles being banned due to gang activity.

Still Viewed as an “Urban Menace” Today

Nunchucks continue to be viewed by many lawmakers as a weapon of the urban landscape, especially threatening in the hands of minorities. For example, Arizona Representative Jay Lawrence referred to nunchucks as an “urban menace” when arguing against repealing the state’s ban in 2019.

Meanwhile, guns are accepted even though they cause thousands of deaths annually across all demographics. According to one study, Americans view gun violence by minorities as more threatening than similar white violence.

Perception of Necessity for Self-Defense

Another key distinction is that guns are often viewed as a necessary tool for self-defense by many Americans. Restricting access to firearms is seen as infringing on individuals’ ability to protect themselves and their families.

Deterrent Effect Debated

Pro-gun advocates argue widespread legal gun ownership deters violent crime out of criminals’ fear of potential armed resistance. However, statistical evidence for this deterrent effect remains debated among researchers.

Some studies have found a correlation between higher gun ownership rates and increased homicides. But data does not conclusively prove a causal relationship in either direction.

Personal Protection

Regardless of their statistical deterrent effect, guns are still viewed by many citizens as vital for personal protection. Nunchucks lack this perception as an essential self-defense tool for the general public.

However, some Second Amendment advocates argue the right to bear arms should encompass all weapons that can be used responsibly for self-defense, including nunchucks. As firearms have become more restricted in some states, this viewpoint has gained legal traction.

Shifting Legal Landscape for Nunchucks

Though banned in many jurisdictions for decades, the absolute prohibition of nunchucks has recently begun to erode through court challenges.

Repeal of State Bans

In 2018, a federal court struck down New York’s ban on nunchucks as unconstitutional under the Second Amendment. The Supreme Court denied hearing the state’s appeal in 2019, leaving the ban overturned.

That same year, Arizona repealed its ban on nunchucks, with supporters citing constitutional rights and personal freedom. Hawaii amended its law in 2018 to allow ownership of nunchucks by those with martial arts training.

Right to Bear Arms Argument

By arguing nunchucks qualify as “arms” for self-defense under the Second Amendment, plaintiffs have found increasing success in overturning bans. However, this remains an evolving legal interpretation.

Nunchucks bans have not been definitively ruled unconstitutional nationwide. But the tide does seem to be turning in favor of deregulation, just as it once turned toward prohibition during the anti-crime fervor of the 1970s and 80s.


The discrepancy between the legality of nunchucks versus firearms arises from a confluence of cultural perceptions, racial bias, legislative inertia, and Constitutional law precedents. But the hard truth is that neither logic nor evidence can fully explain why governments criminalized primitive martial arts weapons while continuing to allow deadly firearms that kill thousands each year.

Perhaps the best path forward is pragmatic lawmaking that moves beyond categorical bans based on cultural stereotypes and unreasoned fears. Sensible regulation of all weapons to maximize public safety, while respecting law-abiding citizens’ liberties, should be the ideal we strive for

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