A baseball bat is a wonderful and extremely useful sporting good item. It’s also a vicious weapon, if swung at one’s head. It’s not the fault of the bat that it can be both, but the nature of its use. Knives work in a similar way, great for cutting one’s food, opening boxes, cutting rope and threatening to gut someone if they fail to hand over their money.
But then, New York’s gravity knife law wasn’t directed at the possession of all knives, because everyone understood that knives, per se, weren’t objects of evil. Instead, it was a reaction to a quirk in time, a moment’s hysteria. GIs returning from WWII brought back Luftwaffe Fallschirmjäger-Messers, German paratrooper knives, which were without question gravity knives. They scared people, because the knives came out of nowhere and who, but for someone evil, would carry such evil knives?
The New York legislature, when the Senate was still held by Republicans, twice amended the law to rid the blight of the definition of gravity knife, which had allowed for the blades of common folding knives that could, with enough force and enough attempts, be made to move a fraction of an inch, such that people who carried such knives, sold in the corner hardware store or Home Depot, would be arrested. Twice, Governor Andy Cuomo vetoed the laws.
A federal court thereafter held the law unconstitutionally vague, as it failed to distinguish between a real gravity knife and a common folding knife used by pretty much everybody for entirely lawful and legitimate purposes, noting the absence of any mens rea that the knife be intended for unlawful use. It has now been repealed, with the Senate in Democratic hands, and Cuomo has signed the law. Finally.
It was a bad law at its inception, born of hysteria. It became a worse law as the cops figured out how to abuse it to make their numbers. It turned into a nightmare law as law-abiding people morphed into criminals for possessing a banal and exceptionally useful item, that might also be used unlawfully if that was the possessor’s intent. And finally, the law is done, as it should have been decades ago, years ago, each time Cuomo vetoed it. When’s the last time you saw anyone carry around a Luftwaffe Fallschirmjäger-Messer anyway?
The New York Times announced this momentous shift.
Black and Latino men had often been charged under New York’s unusual ban on the knives, which are opened with a flick of the wrist.
As were white and green men. Women too, I suppose. The law’s prohibition didn’t criminalize its possession based on race or heritage.
Over the past 60 years, tens of thousands of black and Latino New Yorkers have been arrested for carrying so-called gravity knives — small, easy-to-access blades that are used by everyone from stagehands to steelworkers.
Or large. Or common folding knives, which may be “easy-to-access” to the extent that has anything to do with anything.
In signing the bill — passed unanimously by the Democratic-led Legislature — the governor cited a March decision from the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, which found the gravity-knife law “presents a high risk of arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement” and was “unconstitutionally vague.”
No mention at all of the governor’s two prior vetoes, when the lege was split between Dems and Reps, and there were only decades of flagrant and renowned arbitrariness in enforcement, until much farther down in the article.
The decision was immediately hailed by public defenders and other legal advocates.
Perhaps private criminal defense lawyers, like the Police Benevolent Association, favored the law? Or maybe the criminal defense bar just didn’t hail its repeal, like public defenders and “other legal advocates,” notwithstanding, say, what appeared here.
The ban and the way it was enforced constituted “one of the most discriminatory policing practices in our state,” said Tina Luongo, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society, which issued a 2018 report showing the racial disparity in the way the law was carried out.
Tina (or Justine, for the officious), of course, isn’t just a lawyer with LAS, but Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Defense division. Apparently, LAS tracked its own clientele, by race, and it showed that LAS represented more black and Hispanic knife carrying guys than white or green.
Unsurprisingly, the demographics turn out pretty much as one would expect, both from LAS’ client base, and populations of the counties and the nature of folks who get the most attention from the NYPD. Of course, in Manhattan, white (Hispanic and Non-Hispanic) comprised almost 60% of those arrested for carrying knives. Then again, the percentages add up to more than 100%, so one can’t quite be sure. Lawyers aren’t good at math.
So problem solved, terrible archaic law repealed? Not exactly.
In a statement after the bill was signed, the New York Police Department said it had “opposed the legislation because gravity knives are in reality rapidly deployable combat knives.”
Does this sound at all like “assault rifles” now applied to knives?
“There have been more than 1,600 stabbings and slashings in New York City so far this year,” the department said, adding, “The public should also be aware that the possession of gravity knives in the New York City subway system remains illegal.”
This will be insignificant for those steelworkers who go to work in their limos, but for the LAS clients who take the subway, what are they to do with their knives during their travels? But most importantly, the Assembly sponsor of the repeal struck a blow for racial equality.
The Assembly sponsor of the gravity knife bill, Dan Quart, a Democrat from Manhattan, said that the bill signing was a clear victory over “a deep problem in the penal law” and the policies of Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the borough’s district attorney.
“It’s impossible not to look at the arrest and prosecution numbers in Manhattan, under Cy Vance, and not see a deep disproportionate racial impact,” Mr. Quart said.
It’s impossible not to look at this rationale and think, “maybe they still don’t get it” that the law itself was bad law, regardless of the color of the person arrested or where the lawfully-intended possession of these utterly banal folding knives was observed. Maybe the problem with the law is that it was just bad law, and the problem isn’t quite yet solved.