50 famous things banned in the U.S.
America is a nation of laws—and some of those laws are just downright weird. It’s illegal to wrestle bears in Alabama, for example. You can’t trick-or-treat on Sunday in Delaware, you can’t give rats as gifts in Montana, and in Indiana, you aren’t allowed to shoot fish in a barrel. Some laws, like those just mentioned, are comically odd to the point where you might wonder how legislators even had the time to focus on writing them in the first place. Other bans can be traced to religious blue laws that are holdovers from an era when it was not uncommon for piety to be legislated. In other cases, archaic and primitive laws that once conformed to the norms of the time were simply never wiped from the books as society modernized. In Michigan, for example, a woman may not cut her hair without her husband’s permission.
In many other cases, bans make perfect sense and are enacted to promote public safety, enhance public health, protect the environment, and to keep individuals from inadvertently killing, maiming, poisoning, infecting, burning, or blowing up themselves or other people. Federal law is universal in every corner of America, but the country as a whole is a patchwork of laws that are often inconsistent and contradictory from one state, and even from one municipality to the next. Things that are perfectly legal to own, sell, and possess in one state could land you in prison the next state over.
Here’s a look at 50 things and activities that are forbidden in America. Some of them are federal laws that apply to every state and citizen. Others are unique to a group of states, a single state, or even a local community. Read on for just a few dozen of the thousands of things that Americans are not allowed to do or have.
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Until 2005, the United States consumed 60% of the world’s beluga caviar, a delicacy long associated with high-end luxury cuisine. The fish-egg aristocratic favorite does not come from the beluga whale, which is a mammal, but the beluga sturgeon. In 2005, The New York Times reported that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service had banned the import of beluga products from the countries in the Caspian Sea region that export it because they didn’t comply with safeguards for the fish, which has been threatened with extinction due to overfishing.
Brass knuckles were designed for one thing and one thing only: to break people’s faces by turning average fists into deadly weapons. For obvious reasons, several states prohibit the sale, purchase, or possession of brass knuckles outright, but their legal status remains murky in the country as a whole. Some states ban them only during the use of a crime, and other states ban brass knuckles but provide gaping legal loopholes that allow residents to own them if they’re called something else, like “paperweights” or “jewelry.”
In the 1970s, Bruce Lee’s success spurred a martial arts revolution in the United States, and theaters dedicated to showing kung fu and karate flicks popped up in cities across the country, most notably New York. Many of those cities, including the Big Apple, were experiencing unprecedented crime waves, and nunchucks—like the kind Lee wielded so masterfully on screen—were associated with gangs of martial-arts-obsessed hoodlums who occasionally used the deadly but hard-to-use weapons during muggings and assaults. In 1974, New York led the way for several states to ban nunchucks, but in 2018, USA Today reported that an Empire State judge lifted the ban as an unconstitutional infringement on Second Amendment rights, although appeals making their way through the courts continue to keep nunchucks in legal limbo.
Butterfly knives are another weapon that was associated with both martial arts hysteria and legitimate concerns over street crime in the 1970s. Easy to conceal and built to intimidate, butterfly knives were banned by several states as concealed weapons designed only to kill and maim. The foldable, rapidly deployable bladed weapons remain illegal in more than half a dozen states, and they’re semi-legal in several others.
Long a staple of indigenous people, bushmeat is the name given to animals caught and killed for food in the African wilderness, and it can include anything from bats to monkeys to lions. Its import has long been banned in the United States, partly for environmental concerns, but mostly because of the risk of spreading serious infectious diseases like Ebola. Despite its legal status, bushmeat remains a coveted delicacy for some African-born Americans and is frequently smuggled into the U.S. It commands a high price—as much as $100 for six or seven pounds, according to Newsweek.
Shark fin soup
Shark fin soup is wildly popular throughout the East, but the gruesome practice of “finning” sharks involves catching sharks, hacking off their dorsal fins while they’re still alive, and tossing them back into the water to die. That, along with concern over rapidly dwindling shark populations, compelled the United States to ban the practice of finning in U.S. waters in 2000, according to National Geographic. At least a dozen states ban the sale of shark fins altogether, but the high demand for shark-fin soup has bred a lucrative underground market.
Like butterfly knives and nunchucks, switchblades have for decades been associated with street crime and gangs of marauding delinquent hoodlums. GIs returning from World War II brought back the automatic knives (sometimes called stilettos), and they were soon the trademark weapon of the leather-jacket-clad, post-war gangs that emerged in the 1950s, like the kind made famous in “West Side Story.” The 1958 Federal Switchblade Act made them illegal, and they’re still considered contraband today.
Automatic weapons, which fire ammunition continuously with a single pull of the trigger, have been regulated and generally banned since the 1930s when Prohibition-era gangsters terrorized America with submachine guns, most notably the notorious Thompson submachine gun, or “Tommy gun.” Semiautomatic weapons, which fire one round with each pull of the trigger, however, are still legal, readily available, and hugely popular. Devices called bump stocks allowed gun owners to circumvent the ban by easily converting legally purchased semiautomatic rifles into automatic weapons, but they were banned after a gunman used a bump stock to kill 58 people and wound 422 people in Las Vegas in 2017, according to CNN.
Cuban cigars have long been hailed as the finest in the world, but they were banned as part of JFK’s embargo of Cuba during the Cold War in 1962. When Cuban revolutionary leader and cold warrior Fidel Castro died in 2016, however, President Barack Obama eased some restrictions and allowed some Americans to visit Cuba, buy cigars, smoke them, and gift them to friends and family or use them for personal consumption. It is still illegal, however, to buy and sell Cuban cigars in the United States.
Pufferfish are an ancient Japanese delicacy, but when prepared incorrectly, the highly toxic fish can quickly kill anyone who eats it. Much of its body, including some organs and glands, are packed with tetrodotoxin or saxitoxin, according to the FDA, which are more deadly than cyanide and cannot be destroyed by cooking or freezing. The commercial import and sale of pufferfish, sometimes called blowfish, is highly restricted, and the personal import, sale, or use is always illegal.2018 All rights reserved.