A little-known law against “gravity knives,” a broadly defined weapon that law enforcement has erroneously been applying to folding knives, could soon be amended by the New York state government, ending more than 50 years of arrests and prosecutions for people carrying knives routinely sold in hardware stores.
The bill, if it passes, would clarify that the definition of a gravity knife excludes knives with a “bias toward closure” such as pocketknives. The small, spring-assisted knives have for years been grouped into the same category as the weapons the law originally intended to target — knives with large blades that easily release from their handles with the force of gravity.
New York’s penal code classifies gravity knives as “dangerous weapons” along with electronic stun guns, bludgeons, and kung-fu stars. Carrying such objects can result in a charge of criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree.
Public defenders and criminal-justice-reform advocates argue that the current law unfairly targets minorities and residents with no criminal intent.
The numbers back up that assessment: The gravity-knife law has led to an estimated 60,000 prosecutions in New York City in the last decade, with nearly 86% involving minority defendants, a 2014 analysis by the Village Voice found. Many of the defendants charged with the relevant criminal charges said they intended to use the knives only for work-related purposes, and never against a person.
Brooklyn Defender Services, a public-defender organization, came to a similar conclusion. A statement last April said that 80% of its clients charged with possessing the knives were black or Hispanic.
Some lawyers and public defenders say the gravity-knife bill could be a turning point in ongoing efforts to reduce the amount of people forced to navigate the criminal-justice system.
“It’s one of those laws where it has done almost nothing to protect New Yorkers, and it has been abused to harm so many people,” said Ken Womble, a lawyer who estimated he defended at least 100 clients charged with possessing gravity knives — the vast majority of whom carried them for construction or electric work.
Womble said the “gravity knife” bill would make an immediate impact.
“Unlike a lot of things that have these floaty, airy notions of ‘justice’ that don’t really do anything, this is actually something that will reduce a significant number of people [from being prosecuted]. It will keep them out of the system.”
Stuck in limbo
The bill passed through the New York Senate Codes committee in mid-March, overcoming one of the major obstacles it has been struck down by in the past.
It is now eligible for a vote in the Republican-controlled New York State Senate, which has previously opposed gravity-knife reform and could do so again. The broadness of the gravity-knife law is mostly only taken advantage of by New York City law enforcement. Republicans have argued in the past against reforming it because it generally isn’t applied in other parts of the state, according to the Voice. The Democrat-controlled Assembly, meanwhile, has approved gravity-knife bills twice before and is expected to do so again.
State lawmakers have attempted to amend the legislation twice previously, but met resistance from Republican senators — a confusing dispute given their advocacy for gun rights, assemblyman Dan Quart (D-Manhattan) has pointed out.
In a series of tweets sent last June after the bill died in the Senate for the second year in a row, Quart lambasted the senators for their inaction and listed off the most common nonviolent uses for carrying pocketknives, including stripping wires, cutting open boxes, and wearing them as fashion accessories.
“Decriminalizing possession of gravity knives addresses an issue that cuts across race, class, profession, religion,” he tweeted. “This is a statewide issue which needs attention. I’m baffled that it’s been blocked by pro-gun Senators.”
An electrician was arrested for carrying a knife that he uses to strip wires, cut fruit and clean his nails: http://t.co/GWhGF4a24H
— Dan Quart (@DanQuartNY) June 23, 2015
— Dan Quart (@DanQuartNY) June 23, 2015
The origins of the law
New York’s gravity-knife law was enacted in the 1950s to target an old-fashioned type of knife used by German paratroopers during World War II, but has since been applied to any knife that can be opened with a flick of the wrist — a loose definition that has allowed police officers under pressure to make arrests to sweep common pocketknives and small switchblades into the same category as true gravity knives.
New York penal law defines the gravity knife as any knife with a blade “released from the handle or sheath thereof by the force of gravity or the application of centrifugal force which, when released, is locked in place by means of a button, spring, lever, or other device.”
‘An unbelievably stupid law’
Womble said he was able to get some of the charges against his clients dismissed, but not all. Each of his clients wound up spending at least one night in jail — a negative experience with the criminal-justice system that shouldn’t be trivialized, he said.
“What we need to do is focus on making sure we’re not putting 90 people through the system just to make sure the 10 people who might be bad are also put through the system,” he said. “To be perfectly blunt, it is just an unbelievably stupid law that needs to go away.”