It took three tries, but the state legislature has passed a measure that’s poised to end the most egregious arrests under New York’s much abused “gravity knife” statute. The GOP-led Senate voted unanimously earlier today to move the bill to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s desk, after it passed the Assembly 99–12 earlier this month.
The history of New York’s gravity knife law is complicated, and you can learn all you ever wanted to know about it here and here. The short explanation is that a 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. Tens of thousands of people, the vast majority of them black and Hispanic, have been arrested under the statute over the past decade or so.
The measure passed today, pushed by Manhattan Democrats Dan Quart in the assembly and Diane Savino in the senate, clarifies the definition of a gravity knife by excluding any folding knife with a “bias toward closure.” It’s a technical change, but given that almost all common pocket knives on the market contain such “bias” — in the form of slight spring tension holding the blade in a closed position — it should largely eliminate the NYPD’s dubious arrests.
“This law has been used for years to criminalize possession of folding knives and pocket knives that are used for work or passed down in a family,” Quart said in a press release. “It has not enhanced public safety. I’m proud to have worked with Senator Savino to lead this fight for fair knife laws.”
The next stop is the governor’s desk, but Mayor Bill de Blasio is now officially opposing the reforms.
A memo circulated to the legislature yesterday and obtained by the Voice, signed by the administration’s director of state legislative affairs, argues that the bill would pose a threat to public safety. “These instruments may have incidental, nonviolent uses,” the memo says, “such as for work, but the nature of their design too easily facilitates acts of violence.” The memo goes on to note that “knife violence continues to plague our City,” apparently referring to a recent uptick in slashing incidents, which has not been attributed by the NYPD to any particular type of knife.
As proof of the danger of the knives addressed in Quart’s bill, the memo cites two cases: the stabbing of an NYPD officer in 2012, and an incident last month in which a knife-wielding man was shot to death by police officers near Times Square. According to the memo, “Garry Conrad had just stabbed a woman with an eight-inch gravity knife” when he was confronted by police on May 18.
Conrad, however, never actually stabbed anyone. While news reports did initially describe the incident that way, the NYPD later attributed the woman’s injury not to Conrad, but to a graze wound from an NYPD bullet. The NYPD also never described the knife Conrad was carrying as a gravity knife; however, as has become abundantly clear, since virtually any folding knife can be shoehorned into the current definition, it’s certainly possible it would have qualified as such.
Of course, under Quart’s bill, what Conrad allegedly did — menacing an officer with a knife — is and will remain illegal, regardless of that knife’s design. (It bears pointing out that the “eight-inch” figure is likely a bit of puffery. According to photos circulated by the NYPD, the knife may well have been 8 inches from the tip of the handle to the tip of the blade, but the blade itself is more likely in the 3-to-4–inch range; an 8-inch pocket knife would be rather unwieldy.)
In opposing the reforms, de Blasio joins Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., maybe the most prominent opponent of the changes spearheaded by Quart. For the past two legislative cycles, Vance has quietly lobbied against amendments to the gravity knife law — even while denying that he was doing so — but this year he went public with his strident objections.
Whether de Blasio, whose memo went out before the vote today, will now press Cuomo for a veto is unclear. (It will likely be several weeks before it’s actually in front of the governor.) We’ve asked the mayor’s office, as well as Vance’s, whether they’ll continue this opposition now that the law has passed both chambers by large margins. We’ve also asked for clarification on the apparent factual discrepancies in the administration’s memo, and will update when we hear back.