Bill to Reform Controversial 'Gravity Knife' Law Takes Key Step Forward

The original gravity knife was designed for paratroopers during WW2.
The original gravity knife was designed for paratroopers during WW2.

A bill to amend New York’s much-abused "gravity knife" statute took a significant step forward on Tuesday, when it cleared the New York Senate Codes Committee. It may not sound like much, but since that committee has served as a graveyard for similar bills in years past, the move may bode well for reform.

The newest version of the bill would tweak the definition of a gravity knife to exclude knives with a "bias toward closure." That amendment would ensure that possession of common pocket knives of the kind often used by workers and sold in many New York City retailers would no longer lead to arrest by the NYPD, as has become common in the five boroughs, much to the dismay of criminal justice advocates. The most recent version of the bill would also add the same "bias toward closure" clarification for also-banned switchblade knives, ensuring that some modern "spring assist" pocketknives aren't erroneously categorized with their famously menacing cousins.

We wrote about the NYPD’s enforcement of gravity knife laws in 2014, when we found that the law had been enforced almost exclusively against minority defendants. First passed in the 1950s, and aimed at an antiquated style of knife that's mostly extinct on the modern market, the statute was resurrected for the stop-and-frisk era. It was also effectively rewritten by the NYPD, who took the view that the statute applied to relatively common folding knives. The result was what we estimated to be about 60,000 dubious prosecutions during the ten-year span we studied.

Critics of the law — who represent an ideologically diverse coalition including the Legal Aid Society; the official body of the state judiciary, known as the Office of Court Administration; and right-wing second amendment advocates — say it's widely applied by the NYPD to knives that the legislature never intended to ban, and too often entraps innocent people.

The quirks of upstate, downstate politics created a political bizarro world in the legislature last year when the proposed reforms came forward. Conservative Republican lawmakers who had only recently fought hard against increased firearms restrictions were in the contradictory — some might argue baldly hypocritical — position of opposing the  loosening of knife laws; they killed the bill when it arrived in the Senate. Because the gravity knife prohibition is rarely enforced outside of New York City, it was seen by some as an issue not relevant to voters north of the five boroughs, sources told the Voice at the time.

Having cleared the Codes Committee, the bill is now eligible for a vote by the full Republican-controlled Senate. If it can clear that hurdle — which is not at all a sure thing — it should breeze through the Democrat-controlled assembly, as it has twice in years past. The bill is being sponsored by Upper East Side Democrat Dan Quart in the assembly and Democrat Diane Savino, who represents parts of Staten Island, in the Senate.

The legislative push is only one front in an all-out assault on the gravity knife statute, the constitutionality of which is currently being challenged in federal court on due-process grounds.

You can read more of our coverage of the issue here.

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