Remember Riff, Bernardo and Tony? Immortalized by Leonard Bernstein for your viewing pleasure:
These were simpler times, when “gun” referred to a zip gun, but the weapon of choice was the switchblade and gravity knife. Ethnic gangs of New York held rumbles, and these kids used knives that could easily be deployed with the flick of a wrist. And so, New York Penal Law §265.01(1) followed, “fixing” the hysteria of the day by criminalizing the sorts of knives that rumbling gangs preferred:
§ 265.01 Criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree.
A person is guilty of criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth
(1) He or she possesses any firearm, electronic dart gun, electronic
stun gun, gravity knife, switchblade knife, pilum ballistic knife, metal
knuckle knife, cane sword, billy, blackjack, bludgeon, plastic knuckles,
metal knuckles, chuka stick, sand bag, sandclub, wrist-brace type
slingshot or slungshot, shirken or “Kung Fu star”;
There are a number of “per se” weapons in there, criminalized by their mere possession without any intention of using them unlawfully, that raise eyebrows. Sand bag? Chuka stick has long been a source of consternation for those who practice Kung Fu as a discipline. But as Walter Olson notes at Overlawyered, none has been more controversial than gravity knife.
Used in countless trades and occupations, knives fitting this description are sold at hardware, sporting, and work-gear stores from coast to coast. But New York City routinely prosecutes persons in possession of them even in the absence of any indication that the holder was up to no good or knew they violated local law.
Wally links back to an excellent article by Jon Campbell in the Village Voice, whose calculations set gravity knife busts as one of the foremost crimes being prosecuted in New York City.
The increase seems to be the result of a confluence of forces. Changes in knife design have played a part, as modern features have nudged the most popular styles closer to the edge of the legal definition. But the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program also may be one driver. A prime rationale for the policy has always been weapon recovery; former NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly put that goal front and center in a 2013 Wall Street Journal op-ed, pointing out that stop-and-frisk had “taken tens of thousands of weapons off the street” over the previous decade.
See how it makes for a good talking point to show how law enforcement has saved you from violence? Except that they’re only weapons because the law says so, even though they’re sold in Home Depot and used by tens of thousands of working people.
More recently, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance in 2010 deployed the law as a municipal money-maker by charging Home Depot and other hardware and sports chains for selling what many of them had assumed were lawful knives, and extracting large “restitution” payments as part of the ensuing settlements.
As a bit more history reveals, gravity knives came home with soldiers in World War II. These spoils of war, Luftwaffe Fallschirmjäger-Messer, were taken off German paratroopers, and were quite fascinating pieces of history. My father brought one back, which I played with whenever he left the house. They were cool. I was not in a gang. And they were very much gravity knives, with a button pushed, the knife would shoot straight out of its handle with a flick. Quick, effective, lethal. Just as the Germans designed it to be.
Notwithstanding their illegality, gravity knives are widely manufactured and sold across the country in hardware and outdoor stores under brand names such as Clip-it, Husky Utility Folding Knives and other brands. They are sold for and are used for purely legitimate purposes. Despite “locking” safety features, many can be “flicked” open with the appropriate amount of force. Thus, these knives are routinely carried by many New Yorkers for legitimate purposes ignorant of the fact that they may be in violation of the law and face a potential automatic one-year jail sentence.
In 2012, Clayton Baltzer was on a field trip to New York City with his fine-arts classmates from Pennsylvania’s Baptist Bible College & Seminary. While riding the subway, a police officer observed what he believed to be a gravity knife clipped to Baltzer’s belt. After many failed attempts to flick open the knife, the officer was finally able to open it and placed Baltzer under arrest for the possession of the gravity knife.
Many ordinary pocket knives, the ones that are carried by a variety of people for legitimate use, can be opened with a “flick” if you try a few thousand times. And boom, they magically transform from a perfectly lawful pocket knife, of the sort that boy scouts might carry, to the weapon used by Bernardo to kill Riff, then Tony to kill Bernardo. It didn’t end well for Tony either.
Despite near universal recognition that the law is archaic and, well, asinine, criminalizing per se possession of knives that are legitimately used and, frankly, have zero to do with the underlying purpose of the law, the New York Legislature has refused to change it. Some wags might suggest that this law is way too profitable for the police and state to screw with it over some silliness like prosecuting and convicting people who had no culpable intent whatsoever. Others suggest that the Lege was too busy addressing other pressing laws, so they can rush back to their districts to show how tough on crime they are.
Ironically, at a time when the fundamental right to self-defense under the Second Amendment may undermine much of New York’s anti-gun legislation, designed to make it all but impossible for anyone who wasn’t a former Member of Service to get a handgun, it may prove far easier to stroll Manhattan with a Glock in your waistband than a pen knife on your keychain.