Mimesis Law
26 June 2019

Can Albany Kill The Pointless Gravity Knife Ban?

June 22, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — In other parts of the country, knives find their way into the news only on rare occasions.  The claim by Baltimore cops that Freddie Gray had a illegal knife gave rise to such interest.  But in New York, knives are always a hot topic, at least for the thousands of people arrested for carrying ordinary, lawful knives.

NY Assemblyman Dan Quart took up this cause, and presented a novel idea that deserves more attention.  Quart watched the never ending stream of bills introduced with the name of the latest victim of violence, more often than not a young child, and apparently recognizing that those bills have everything to do with the sponsor and, too often, nothing to do with a solution to any real problem.

Instead, Quart decided to play small ball with a simple measure that might actually make a difference and do something useful.  His goal is to keep thousands of people with zero criminal intent out of jail.  He proposed that New York legalize the mere possession of a gravity knife.

For those unaware, a gravity knife is, to borrow from that smoothest of wordsmiths’ efforts, the New York Penal Law,

…any knife which has a blade which is released from the handle or sheath thereof by the force of gravity or the application of centrifugal force which, when released, is locked in place by means of a button, sprint, lever, or other device.

Or, a knife that opens when you flick your wrist.  Or, in the minds of the vast majority of people who possess it, a pocketknife.  For the history of the gravity knife, Scott Greenfield has saved me the trouble of having to reinvent the wheel.

[G]ravity knives came home with soldiers in World War II.  These spoils of war, Luftwaffe Fallschirmjager-Messer, were taken off German paratroopers, and were quite fascinating pieces of history.

Following WWII, the gravity knife and switchblade became popular tools of ethnic gangs and their gangly activities.  Both could be operated using only one hand, thus giving would be ne’er-do-wells the drop over their intended targets that a normal pocketknife simply could not.  Albany attempted to stem the fear of gang violence by prohibiting these knives in 1954, but the definition in the Penal Law opens a gaping hole for abuse.

The penalty for possessing either a gravity knife or a switchblade can vary, but the majority of the time, a person is charged with a misdemeanor.  Sometimes, though, if the person has a prior conviction, no matter what the crime, the case becomes a “bump up.”  This means that unlike the normal one year maximum jail sentence under the misdemeanor, a person can face a violent felony charge and a maximum sentence of seven years.

Over the last 60 years, the law has had a devastating effect on the switchblade, almost eradicating it from the New York market.  However, “gravity” knives are still used all over the state (and country) in “countless trades and occupations … and are sold at hardware, sporting, and work-gear stores from coast to coast.”  The gravity knife is still as illegal as the switchblade, but unlike its more nefarious cousin, the general public doesn’t really know that, or even understand exactly what they are.

As we have moved away from the time of the Sharks and Jets, gravity knives have been used almost exclusively as a work tool.  Whether it is an electrician cutting tape or wires or a worker cutting sheet rock, the knife’s design allows for easy, one-handed use.

Were this law enforced by reasonable people, then the tradesman with a gravity knife or pocketknife would be sent on his way to carry on his business, as obviously not someone with a weapon for any criminal purpose.  However, in New York, the police have exploited the law, not to advance public safety, but to make thousands upon thousands of bullshit arrests.  There are stories of cops partially opening a normal pocket knife and then flicking it open to get an arrest.  There are stories of cops flicking over and over again until the knife finally opens.  There are also stories of cops using a “practiced move,” like what happened to Carsten Vogel, a former supporter of the police.

When Vogel handed over his knife, the cop who had stopped him went through a routine that plays out thousands of times every year in New York City.  Holding Vogel’s knife, the cop raised his arm and vigorously flicked his wrist, in a practiced move.

Vogel’s knife opened and snapped into place, and although it was not designed to be opened that way, the cops had figured out a way to make it fit within the law and get an arrest.

Assemblyman Quart has apparently seen the true consequences of New York’s decision to make gravity knives per se weapons, and he wants to change the law.  Estimates put the number of arrests for simple gravity knife possession at well over 60,000 in just the last 10 years.  Almost none of those arrested were alleged to have used the knife or even had it out of their pocket or bag.  I personally have represented at least 100 people charged with possession of a gravity knife and I cannot recall a single one that was ever alleged to have been holding the knife in his or her hand.  Many gave seemingly honest statements to the police like “I didn’t know it was illegal,” or “I use it for work.”  They were all still arrested.

Shortly after New York passed the SAFE Act, a measure designed to make it slightly more difficult for people to get rapid-fire artillery, Quart introduced his gravity knife bill, which fights simplicity with simplicity.  The bill, #A02259A, would make gravity knives illegal “only if the defendant has intent to use the same unlawfully against another.”  The bill passed the New York State Assembly with ease.

Once the bill got to the Senate, though, it became mired in indifference and inattention.  One Senator in particular, Michael Nozzolio, represents Seneca in upstate New York, far away from the black and Hispanic people who have made up over three quarters of gravity knife arrests.  Nozzolio is a staunch supporter of the right to bear arms, as long we are talking about firearms.  He opposed the SAFE Act and apparently picks his paychecks up off the NRA’s nightstand.  When A02259A got to his committee, he killed it.

His stated reason for refusing to allow Quart’s bill out of committee was that the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office opposed changing the gravity knife law.  Disregarding the fact that “because they told me to” is a terrible reason to give for anyone over the age of 10, the Manhattan DA’s Office denied weighing in on the matter at all.  Nozzolio, when questioned by a reporter about his apparent lie, cleared it all up:

“In these few days of the session remaining, we are going to see a review of the measure.  The bill has been reported to the Rules Committee and we will see a detailed analysis there.”

Unlike Nozzolio’s smoke screen, Dan Quart has said, simply, that providing hypothetical protection from a rare hypothetical gravity knife attack is not worth hauling tens of thousands of people who have no criminal intent off to jail.  His bill is not radical, it merely adheres to the principal that criminal laws should deal with criminals, not create them.

Quart could have gone for an easier and potentially more popular path.  He could have stood before the cameras, like an idiot, holding two terrifying machetes for his machete-ban bill following a highly publicized machete attack.  He could have, like an idiot, pandered to other idiots in the wake of the Eric Garner protests by proposing a bill making it even more illegal to vandalize police cars.  Instead, though, Dan Quart seems to actually be doing his job, and the Assemblyman representing Manhattan’s Upper East Side has vowed to reintroduce his bill in the next session.

We need the big sweeping ideas, but if we ignore the small, hard details by which injustice affecting thousands is allowed to occur, we make little tangible progress.  Thousands upon thousands of people have lost their jobs, their apartments, and their freedom because of a common work knife.  People love to say that ignorance of the law is not a defense, but when the law itself is so ignorantly applied, it’s the law that is indefensible.

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  • Disrespectful, Discourteous & Annoying? Bummer | Simple Justice
    30 June 2015 at 8:08 am - Reply

    […] is unexplained, as the parties stipped that if the stop was lawful, the possession was solid.  But even given New York’s knife laws, it’s impossible know that a knife is illegal by merely observing […]

  • Brian
    14 December 2016 at 2:42 pm - Reply

    “People love to say that ignorance of the law is not a defense, but when the law itself is so ignorantly applied, it’s the law that is indefensible.”

    A beautiful and powerful statement, Mr. Womble. I will be using this quote (with full attribution to you of course) in the future.