On Switchblades, ‘Cheap Dime Store Hoods’ and That Wet End, Lachance


My favorite scene in Stand By Me — which I could more or less recite word for word if you’re interested — comes near the end, when the movie’s diminutive hero, Gordie Lachance, stands up to a neighborhood bully.

It’s a tense encounter; Gordie and his friends have just discovered the dead body they’ve been searching for — the quest to recover a corpse is at the center of the film’s plot — and in a dispute over who gets to claim credit for the find, Ace, the leader of a local gang, decides he’s going to kill my primary role model as a ten-year-old Gordie’s best friend, Chris Chambers.

Ace’s weapon of choice in this showdown? A switchblade knife.

At the climactic moment, Ace clicks the knife open, and starts his approach. But just as he’s reaching for Chris’s throat, there’s a gunshot, and the camera pans to Gordie.

Twelve years old and skinny as a rail, Gordie’s hardly a match for Ace. Except that he’s holding a .45 in his hand. And when Ace sees that gun pointed right at his stupid greaser mug, the gangster slows his roll right quick.

And why is that? It’s because, as even a “cheap dime store hood” knows, a gun is far, far more dangerous than any knife. It’s a point (Ha!) that’s so self-evident that it’s almost not worth making. But when New York’s very first knife restrictions were proposed, incredibly, at least one lawmaker didn’t see things that way.

New York’s knife laws are the subject of this week’s cover story, where we investigate what many regard as the misapplication of a knife statute dating from 1956. Thousands of people have been arrested in New York City for the possession of common pocket knives — a style that the legislature never intended to ban.

Blade Stunner: How a ’50s-era New York Knife Law Landed Thousands in Jail, Padded Stop and Frisk Numbers, and Brought Right and Left Together

But the first attempted knife ban — targeting switchblades, and ultimately unsuccessful — came even earlier than the law we wrote about. It was in 1939 that Daniel Burrows, an assemblymember from Manhattan, pushed to outlaw the style of knife Ace handles so deftly in the clip above.

Burrows’ public statements perfectly encapsulate the (arguably) overblown fear that lawmakers had of switchblades at the time, and the hyperbolic language surrounded knife bans back then.

At a session in 1939, Burrows put on quite a show. As the New York Times reported back then, when his bill came to the floor for a vote, Burrows strolled into the state house, snapped open a switchblade, and asked for “volunteers” to help him demonstrate the weapon’s effectiveness.

As the knife “swished” through the air, in the Times‘ characterization, Burrows explained that while many victims could to the knife’s deadliness, unfortunately, they had “passed to the Great Beyond.”

Political grandstanding is nothing new, obviously, but Burrows had a flair for the dramatic, to say the least. “I’d rather take my chances on a man with a gun than one of these any time,” Burrows remarked, which even Ace knows is probably a little overstated.

In that early coverage, the Times happily played along with the farce, though. Every time the knife flicked open, the paper’s scribe noted, “an involuntary shudder” ran through the assembly — “and the press.”

The paper explained that Burroughs had “virtually intimidated” his colleagues into passing the switchblade ban. The assembly speaker eventually cut short (the whole subject is a minefield of puns) the debate, and called for the legislature to act on the bill quickly, “before Mr. Burrows drops that knife.” The vote was unanimous. (The measure failed in the state senate, and never actually became law.)

For a lot of the assembly members gathered in 1939, it was probably their first experience with a switchblade. The most infamous and instantly recognizable knife of all time was yet to have its moment of fame, which came in the 1950s, when it became closely associated with “greaser” and youth gang culture.

But what Burrows helped initiate in 1939 led directly to the restrictions New York still has on the books today. And far from a moribund, vestigial law that’s never enforced, the statute that grew out of Burrows’ law is still used to lock up thousands of people every year.

If only Burrows had taken a cue from Ace. The assemblymember had what was otherwise a truly admirable career. Burrows was one of the first black members of the assembly, where he filled prominent leadership roles. He was also a hugely successful businessman and, later on, a mentor to mayor David Dinkins. But he might have had this issue slightly wrong.

Check out our much more modern knife story here.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 8, 2014

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