Gravity, Repealed

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 It has now been repealed, with the Senate in Democratic hands, and Cuomo has signed the law.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.

16 thoughts on “Gravity, Repealed

  1. Roger

    “Then again, the percentages add up to more than 100%, so one can’t quite be sure.”

    I think you’re misunderstanding what the percentage figures are measuring. Try adding them horizontally rather than vertically.

    1. SHG Post author

      Obviously, except horizontally provides relevant information while vertically is uninformative.

      1. Rendall

        Here, fixed it:

        Bronx: 220
        Asian 4 / 1.8%
        Black Hispanic 39 / 17.7%
        Black non-Hispanic 88 / 40%
        White Hispanic 76 / 34.5%
        White non-Hispanic 13 / 6%

        Kings: 247
        Asian 10 / 4%
        Black Hispanic 11 / 4.5%
        Black non-Hispanic 163 / 66%
        White Hispanic 33 / 13.4%
        White non-Hispanic 30 / 12.1%

        New York: 232
        Asian 6 / 2.6%
        Black Hispanic 26 / 11.2%
        Black non-Hispanic 103 / 44.4%
        White Hispanic 65 / 28.0%
        White non-Hispanic 32 / 13.8%

        Queens: 143
        Asian 13 / 9.1%
        Black Hispanic 4 / 2.8%
        Black non-Hispanic 74 / 51.7%
        White Hispanic 40 / 18.2%
        White non-Hispanic 12 / 5.4%

        Richmond: 43
        Asian 1 / 2.3%
        Black Hispanic 0 / 0%
        Black non-Hispanic 13 / 30.2%
        White Hispanic 13 / 30.2%
        White non-Hispanic 16 / 37.2%

  2. Pedantic Grammar Police

    This law has nothing to do with knives and I doubt that it ever did. The purpose of this law (and the myriad other vague and pointless criminal laws that still exist, with more being passed every year), is to allow the police to harass and arrest people at will. The repeal of this law will change nothing; the police will adapt. They will move their gravity knife enforcement to the subways and buses, and they will use one or more of the many other pointless vague laws that still exist. These laws will always exist. If the peons
    make enough noise about one particular law, it may be repealed, but the ability of the police to harass and arrest at will will never be curtailed. Especially not in NYC.

      1. Nick Lidakis

        This post has nothing to do with gravity knives, per se.
        Its about bad laws passed to address some real or imagined hysteria.
        Said laws are almost always, if not always, written very poorly.
        Which stay on the books for decades because that’s what happens when you have hundreds of thousands of laws on the books to begin with.
        Then they can be used as political footballs by either party to drum up support for or against its repeal.
        Meanwhile people are still getting locked up for ordinary, lawful behaviour.
        And though it took decades to repeal this one law, there are probably a couple thousand poorly written laws that have been written since and will sit on the books and do untold harm to regular folks.

        I’d like my cookie air dropped by yellow helicopter.
        Or gift certificate to Per Se.

        Welcome back.

        1. SHG Post author

          You’re kinda right (although this post is most assuredly about gravity knives in particular), though most malum prohibitum laws suffer from the similar infirmities. People have the hubris to believe we can micromanage our world to perfection using the blunt object of laws, and we never seem to learn the lesson that one moment’s passionate “something must be done” is the next moment’s “how did this horrible thing come to pass?”

  3. Hunting Guy

    Simon Cowell

    “I suggest we bring some normality back to this country and say if you are carrying a knife, there must be zero tolerance. If it was up to me, everyone caught with a knife would get an automatic ten year sentence.”

    London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan.

    “ No excuses: there is never a reason to carry a knife. Anyone who does will be caught, and they will feel the full force of the law.”

    General James Mattis.

    Always carry a knife with you. Just in case there’s cheesecake, or you need to stab someone in the throat.”

  4. Guitardave

    Welcome back, Admiral…you gonna smoke some of those fishes?…I’l bring the crackers..

  5. Jim Tyre

    What is your problem with green men?
    (fires up google)
    Oh, now I understand. But welcome back, anyway.

  6. Guitardave

    The pol calling it a “clear victory over a deep prob-blah-blah-lem.. Right.
    Not quite deep enough it seems. Maybe this headline would have quelled that turkeys preening…
    “Above-ground gravity knife law repealed….woop-de-fuckin’-do”

  7. B. McLeod

    “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.”

    Actually, it’s completely possible. The very best way not to see is not to look.

    This is how they can keep trying to find ways to enforce a law that was held unconstitutional before it was repealed. Is it less vague in the subway, or when reconfigured to “rapidly deployable combat knives”? One might expect additional court challenges on the premise that it is not.

    1. SHG Post author

      Unless they change the definition itself (and to what end?), the upstairs/downstairs split will be just as arbitrary as before.

  8. Black Bellamy

    They took the text of the current law, searched for “gravity knife” and replaced that with ” ̶g̶r̶a̶v̶i̶t̶y̶ ̶k̶n̶i̶f̶e̶” in eight places. Awesome show, great job!

    https://legislation.nysenate.gov/pdf/bills/2019/A5944

    Sadly though, the nunchaku, my favorite instrument for extracting concessions from wily street vendors, still remains a forbidden instrument.

    1. SHG Post author

      Blame Bruce Lee. No really. Strikeout is the lege way of showing that gravity knife has been removed from the CPW 3 & 4 statute (PL 265.01-02), but not 265.00 definitions:

      5. “Gravity knife” means 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, spring, lever or other device.

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