News & Politics

Once Again, Albany Republicans Stall Out the Clock on Gravity Knife Bill

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After an anticlimactic final few days in the New York Senate, a bill that would have prevented many of the most problematic arrests under New York’s gravity knife statute was blocked by Republican lawmakers for the second year in a row.

The measure would have added a “criminal intent” element to the existing law, which for years has been interpreted more broadly and banned anyone from carrying the knives at all — even if they were being used legitimately. The original law was passed in 1956 in the midst of a national freakout over youth gangs. The gravity knives originally targeted by lawmakers were closely related to switchblades, and often large and menacing. In recent years, however, the statute that banned them has increasingly been used to arrest people carrying common pocketknives, with arrests falling disproportionately on people of color.

The bill’s failure wasn’t unexpected. Proposed by Manhattan Democrat Dan Quart, the bill passed easily in the Democrat-controlled assembly. But the vote there hinted at the odd political dynamics at play as almost all “no” votes came from Republicans — some of them strong proponents of gun rights. And ultimately, it was pro-gun Republicans who allowed the bill to languish until the clock ran out.

Sources in the legislature tell the Voice that the opposition may have been as simple as upstate Republicans being unwilling to support a bill from a liberal downstate lawmaker. But there was also some pushback behind the scenes from law enforcement officials, particularly Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance. Vance spearheaded what was ultimately a halfhearted campaign to get purportedly illegal knives off the shelves of city retailers in 2010. As we documented, despite threats to prosecute some hardware and outdoors stores for selling knives deemed illegal, Vance allowed a majority of those stores to later violate their “deferred prosecution agreements” without consequence. His office also appears to have abandoned a promised education campaign regarding illegal knives, even while aggressively prosecuting possession cases and using the campaign against retailers to justify doing so.

Vance’s office had earlier denied opposing the bill, and reiterated that denial Sunday night. “The Manhattan D.A.’s Office generally opposes outright decriminalization of weapons that can be used as instruments of violent crime but has not actively opposed this bill,” Joan Vollero, a spokeswoman in Vance’s office, wrote in a statement emailed to the Voice. “We would support legislation that allows for people with bona fide needs for gravity knives to get permits to carry them.”

Though the gravity knife law is rarely prosecuted outside of New York City, in the five boroughs, the NYPD and local district attorneys have effectively stretched the definition of a gravity knife to the point that it encompasses almost every pocketknife on the modern market. Any knife that can be opened with a vigorous wrist-flick can qualify, even if it was never designed to operate that way. The result is an estimated 60,000 prosecutions under the state over the past ten years. Of those arrested under the statute during that time, 86 percent were black or Latino.

Despite a last-minute push by Quart, and an accompanying Twitter rant (see below), the bill never made it up for a vote in the senate. The bill died in the codes committee, chaired by upstate Republican Mike Nozzolio, but is likely to be reintroduced when lawmakers return to Albany in the fall.