Cyrus Vance's War on Knife Law Reform

Cyrus Vance's War on Knife Law Reform
Manhattan District Attorney's Office Facebook page

With time running short in the legislative session, the prospects of reforming New York’s much-abused gravity knife law remain very much in doubt.

Republicans in the New York Senate still seem lukewarm to any change, allowing a bill championed by Assemblyman Dan Quart, a Manhattan Democrat, to languish for months without a vote. And for the first time, a powerful opponent to reform — Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. — is coming out of the shadows and going full-bore to scuttle Democratic efforts.

It’s an odd look for a self-styled progressive prosecutor like Vance. Outside of a few reactionary — and baldly hypocritical — Republicans in the statehouse, Vance stands more or less alone in his public opposition.

For two years now, we’ve been documenting how the NYPD and local D.A.s — Vance chief among them — have used the state’s “gravity knife” statute to lock up mostly black and brown New Yorkers, sometimes in outrageous circumstances.

The history of the law is complicated, and you can learn all you ever wanted to know here and here. But the short explanation is that an outdated, poorly worded statute, passed in 1958 and designed to outlaw large, switchblade-like knives, has increasingly been used to arrest people for common folding knives. Under a quirk of language, any knife that can be opened with a wrist flick can land its owner in jail. And NYPD officers have learned that nearly any folding blade on the market can be opened with a practiced snap, even if it was never designed to operate that way.

An NYPD officer demonstrates the wrist flick technique.
An NYPD officer demonstrates the wrist flick technique.
CREDIT: Taken from a video prepared by the Legal Aid Society and submitted in a recent court filing.

While the statute is technically in force statewide, outside of New York City it’s so rarely prosecuted as to be effectively obsolete. Not so in the five boroughs, where tens of thousands have been arrested, and certainly not in Manhattan, where Vance’s office has used it more zealously than any other.

According to statistics recently compiled by the Legal Aid Society, over a six-month period it analyzed in 2015, Vance prosecuted four and a half times as many of its clients for gravity knives as did D.A.s in all the other boroughs combined. Of 254 prosecutions, only four defendants were accused of using the knife unlawfully; the rest were charged with simple possession.

The bill currently rotting away in the legislature would do a lot to end the most egregious arrests by tweaking the technical definition of a “gravity knife.” Of course, using a knife to threaten someone or to commit violence would still be illegal; the change would just make it hard to shoehorn run-of-the-mill pocketknives and utility knives into the flawed definition.

As such, proposals for reform have gained broad bipartisan support not only from groups like the Legal Aid Society, the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Bronx Defenders Services, but also from the rock-ribbed, law-and-order-loving Office of Court Administration, the official body of the New York State judiciary.

Cyrus Vance's War on Knife Law Reform
Under the NYPD's stop-and-frisk program, our analysis showed that black and Hispanic suspects, as categorized by the NYPD, were nearly twice as likely to be arrested as their white counterparts, even when both were carrying knives.
Under the NYPD's stop-and-frisk program, our analysis showed that black and Hispanic suspects, as categorized by the NYPD, were nearly twice as likely to be arrested as their white counterparts, even when both were carrying knives.

In fact, the issue has been creating unlikely alliances for years; a federal case challenging the gravity knife statute’s constitutionality is being litigated by a group called Knife Rights, best described as an NRA for knives. That group's lawsuit is being supported by the Legal Aid Society — a somewhat odd combination — and it has also been lobbying on behalf of Quart's legislation, not what one would expect of a bill put forward by a downstate progressive.

The media has increasingly been taking notice, too. There was recent coverage in the Wall Street Journal and on WNYC. On May 31, the New York Times editorial board threw its support behind Quart's bill. And of course, this commie rag has been harping on bullshit knife arrests for years. (The Times cited our reporting several times in its editorial.)

All of this is to say that calls for reform have come from across the ideological spectrum. But oddly enough, as we’ve reported in years past, opposition to that reform has come almost exclusively from the GOP’s ranks.

In many cases, lawmakers who voted against gravity knife reform — i.e., who support stiff criminal penalties for knife possession — are otherwise staunch Second Amendment advocates. Assault weapons and high-capacity clips are A-OK for these lawmakers, but folding knives are evidently a bridge too far.

The hypocrisy of this stance is pretty hilarious, actually, as can be seen in the video above, which juxtaposes the sometimes over-the-top rhetoric of lawmakers talking about guns with their votes on knife reform.

But it’s also confusing. Supporting the reform of a broken knife law would seem like an easy way for Republicans in Albany to score points with Second Amendment types.

The only way to explain their opposition, really, is Vance, who has been quietly lobbying against different iterations of Quart’s bill behind the scenes for several years, sources have informed the Voice, even if his office has consistently denied doing so.

This year, however, he’s pulled out all the stops.

Last month, Vance went so far as to hold a confidential conference call with senate Republicans to argue against gravity knife reform, two sources with knowledge of the call say. And two weeks ago, he distributed a memo to Quart and to Democrat Diane Savino, sponsor of companion legislation in the senate, urging them to alter their bill.

In that memo, as well as in a recent letter to the Times, Vance very predictably argues that the recent uptick in slashing incidents in New York City makes this the wrong time to relax knife prohibitions. He doesn’t say that those slashings have anything to do with “gravity knives,” however, because there is zero evidence that they do. Even the NYPD has described the spike in attacks as little more than a statistical blip. And of the dozens of cases we've examined over the years, none have involved defendants using so-called gravity knives for violence. 

In an effort, maybe, to sound reasonable, Vance is now publicly claiming to have offered alternatives to Quart’s current bill — what he characterized, in his letter to the Times, as “ways to address the legitimate concerns of tradespeople without compromising public safety.”

But among the painfully impractical alternative suggestions Vance put forward in his memo to lawmakers was a licensing system. For pocketknives. The idea that the state could feasibly license millions of devices that — to name just one fatal complication — lack serial numbers is so egregiously ridiculous that it seems intended as nothing but a wrench in the works. (We’ve asked Vance’s office to clarify how such a proposal might actually look in practice, how much it might cost, who would administer it — but they’ve declined to comment on the details.)

Will Vance’s full-court press in favor of a discriminatory, doo-wop-era law ultimately succeed? Maybe. Even gun-crazy Republicans are apparently sympathetic to a law-and-order argument from a powerful prosecutor, whether or not such a stance makes them look like utter hypocrites. Which it does.

The gravity knife reform bill has been stalled since March by Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican with an “A” rating from the NRA. All he needs to do is put the bill up for a vote by the full senate, and its chances are quite good, sources in the legislature say. But so far he hasn’t done that. (Flanagan has failed to respond to numerous calls from the Voice.)

If Vance continues to align himself with some of the most craven hypocrites in New York government, that would be a shame. But on this particular issue, it would also be a betrayal of the kind of positions that got him elected to begin with.

When he ran for office in 2009, his promises of a new approach to law enforcement were enough to earn him the support of liberals like David Dinkins and criminal justice titans like Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project.

Over his tenure, while it’s been far from perfect, he’s taken some steps to earn those endorsements. He’s at least shown a willingness to re-examine the old ways of doing things. That’s why it’s so baffling that he refuses to do so now.


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