News & Politics

Gravity Knife Reform Appears Blocked By GOP In State Senate

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A state senator from Brooklyn has emerged as a major stumbling block in the drive to reform New York’s controversial “gravity knife” law, an effort that now looks likely to fail for a fourth year in a row.

Senator Martin Golden, a Republican representing Bay Ridge and other parts of southern Brooklyn, says he’s concerned that amending the law — which critics say has been abused by the NYPD and overwhelmingly affects people of color — would hand a win to “MS-13 gang members.”

“Knives kill, knives maim, knives are used in assaults on a regular basis,” Golden told the Voice. He said gravity knives are used in a large number of violent crimes, and said it was unwise to give violent criminals another tool for mayhem. “And as a former New York City police officer, I know the dangers of gravity knives. If you take a look at the weapons of choice today, we’re not locking people up with guns as much as we are with knives….MS-13 used that on a regular basis. They pulled people’s teeth out with them. They poked people’s eyes out with them. These people are terrible, terrible people.”

The debate over reform has been persistently hampered by a lack of information, and Golden’s assertions about gravity knife violence are unsupported by available data. While stabbings and slashings — with cutting weapons of all types — are more common than shootings in New York City, guns were used in more than twice as many homicides in 2016 as knives of any variety.

Golden’s assertion that knives are the “weapon of choice” for gangs also isn’t supported by available data. The NYPD’s statements on knife crimes — during a reported uptick last spring, for example — have not linked such incidents with gang violence, and no agency has connected gravity knives with MS-13 in particular. After a 5 percent increase in knife crimes between 2015 and 2016, attacks are down about 1 percent year to date in 2017 as of June 12, according to the NYPD.

The Voice has repeatedly requested data from both the NYPD and the Manhattan D.A. on violence specifically involving gravity knives, but both agencies have said such information isn’t available. Neither agency has ever pointed the Voice to a homicide committed with a gravity knife.

Asked if he or his staff could share whatever numbers he was relying upon in making his statements, Golden declined.

“You have to get them [from the NYPD],” Golden said. Asked if he or his staff could provide them, Golden demurred. “I can’t, I don’t have them with me.”

Opponents of the current law say it’s discriminatory and outdated, and has been misinterpreted by local law enforcement for years. As we’ve written before:

Enacted more than sixty years ago, the law was originally intended to ban large, switchblade-like knives. But the NYPD and local prosecutors, particularly in Manhattan, have more recently applied the law to common folding blades of a type widely available at hardware and outdoor retailers throughout the city.

As the courts have interpreted the language of the law, any knife that can be “flicked” open with a snap of the wrist — which is the case for virtually any folding knife — can be considered illegal. More than 60,000 people have been arrested under the statute in the past decade; the vast majority have been people of color, and they’ve almost exclusively been arrested in the five boroughs.

(More background, and our original 2014 investigation into the issue, can be found here and here.)

The Legal Aid Society (LAS) is among the loudest voices pushing for reform to the gravity knife law. They’re also the only organization that has so far released any substantive data on the use of alleged gravity knives in crimes. And the group’s newly tabulated numbers, released Wednesday to the Voice, suggest that gravity knives are rarely used in violent attacks.

Out of more than 1,800 violent felony cases the group analyzed, gravity knives were used in only 14 cases, or about 0.08 percent. Belts, brooms, and hammers were more likely to be used as weapons. A cane or crutches were also more common weapons, used in 28 cases, twice as often as a gravity knife; a bat was used in 50 cases, and a kitchen knife in 68 cases.

An “unspecified knife” was used in 292 cases, raising questions of how the NYPD classifies knives used in attacks. The department pledged last year to start closely tracking knife crimes by type, but the department has declined to release that data.

The reform measure in question, championed by Manhattan Democratic assemblyman Dan Quart, would change the technical definition of a gravity knife to exempt most common folding blades. It easily passed the assembly last month. What has now stalled is companion legislation, sponsored by Senator Diane Savino, a member of the powerful Independent Democratic Conference.

Savino’s bill has passed out of the committee process and can be voted on by the full chamber at any time. Similar legislation easily passed last year. But sources in the legislature say Golden has intervened with Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan in an effort to scuttle it. Golden denies that he has killed the measure and told the Voice he simply wants more time for discussion. Flanagan has the exclusive ability to add legislation to the agenda or not. His office did not return a call for comment.

When the reform measure passed the legislature last year, it was over the objections of the NYPD and the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance. Mayor Bill de Blasio joined law enforcement groups in opposing a measure they thought would endanger officers and the public. Despite its success in the legislature, the measure was ultimately vetoed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. In his veto message, Cuomo called the current state of law “absurd” and suggested he was open to alternative solutions. He has not commented on whether he supports the bill this time around.

Hara Robrish, an attorney with LAS who helped compile the newly released data, said she was still hopeful the bill would pass. The version proposed this year is considerably more simple than the one vetoed last year, and she and other proponents believe it addresses the governor’s concerns.

“This law is unjust and discriminatory, and hurts thousands of hardworking New Yorkers every year,” Robrish said. “No store owners or store employees have ever been arrested and prosecuted for selling the knives. It would be a major setback for criminal justice reform if the gravity knife bill does not pass the senate.”

Golden acknowledged that objections from law enforcement groups were driving his own opposition.

“When law enforcement tells me that they’re against legalizing knives, that to me is enough for me to say we’re not doing it,” Golden told the Voice.

For years, gravity knife reform was blocked by Republicans in the senate, ironic given that many of the same lawmakers who supported draconian knife laws were also strong gun rights advocates. The National Rifle Association’s support for changes to the gravity knife law likely made the difference last year, leading to almost unanimous support from the senate’s GOP. (Golden was the one holdout.)

Asked if he risked a backlash from that powerful interest group, Golden was matter-of-fact.

“The NRA has their position, and I have mine.”

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