The New York State Assembly on Wednesday passed an amendment to a controversial knife law — the ban on so-called “gravity knives” — that some in the legal community say has resulted in the unjust arrest of thousands of New Yorkers over the past ten years.
The law banning gravity knives — passed in the mid-1950s and originally aimed at a close cousin of the switchblade — has been the subject of controversy for several years. As we reported last year, while the law was intended to ban a specific kind of knife perceived as especially dangerous half a century ago, it has been applied much more broadly by law enforcement within New York City. It now essentially criminalizes almost all modern pocketknives. Any knife that can be flicked open can be considered a gravity knife under the interpretation used by the NYPD, a standard that can apply to many common folding knives. As many as 60,000 people — more than 80 percent of them people of color — have been arrested for gravity knife possession in New York City over the past ten years.
The bill that passed the assembly would require a suspect to have criminal intent in order to prosecute. As we documented when we reviewed dozens of cases — including those of contractors, plumbers, and even a Bible camp counselor — many people arrested for alleged gravity knives have no intent to use the knife in a violent way, and often carry the tools for their jobs. We told the story of Richard Neal, who was arrested while “walking and talking” with his friend when an officer spotted a knife clipped to his pocket. He ultimately served six years in prison for the offense.
Dan Quart, a Democratic assemblyman from Manhattan who sponsored the bill, told the Voice that the law as it currently stands creates a basic unfairness. “There’s an inequity in the law, in that people who purchase gravity knives at a hardware store can then be stopped, frisked, arrested, and convicted, for simply having possession of it,” Quart says.
In an illustration of the odd politics at play over the issue, most of the opposition to the bill came from Republicans, some of whom are supporters of gun rights. Al Graf, a Republican from Long Island, spoke against the bill, echoing comments he made in 2013 when a previous iteration came before the assembly.
“I’d like to think by taking that knife off the street, just like you would take a gun off the street, you save somebody from injury, or you save somebody from being robbed, or you save somebody from dying,” Graf said.
Graf was an outspoken opponent of the 2013 Safe Act, a gun control measure that, among other things, banned high-capacity magazines and required tighter controls on gun sales.
The gravity knife law has been formally opposed by labor unions, public defense organizations, and even the Office of Court Administration, the official body of the state judiciary, who say that innocent people are being arrested for carrying tools they use on the job and which are widely available in local stores.
An identical bill is currently stalled in the senate, and sources tell the Voice that it is being quietly opposed by law enforcement. That bill is not expected to pass before the end of the legislative session next week.
Watch the debate below:
Jon Campbell is a staff writer for the Voice, covering criminal justice, legal issues, and the occasional mutant park squirrel.