For the second time in two years, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has vetoed a law legalizing gravity knives, which are loosely defined as any knife with a blade that opens up from the handle by a button or by the force of gravity. But the now vetoed reform bill, Cuomo alleged, would “essentially legalize all folding knives.”
Superficially, the 1958 law banning switchblades might seem like a sensible one to have on the books. Today, though, switchblades are uncommon —but that hasn’t stopped New York’s police and prosecutors from broadly interpreting the antiquated law to juice their arrest quotas or conviction rates.
The Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit providing legal counsel for low-income New Yorkers, said 84% of its clients arrested for carrying gravity knives in the second half of 2015 were black or Latinx. Between 2000 and 2012, The New York Times reported, more than 70,000 people were arrested for carrying gravity knives.
One of the law’s most vocal defenders remains none other than Cyrus Vance, Manhattan’s District Attorney who conveniently decided against prosecuting two Trump scions and Harvey Weinstein despite possessing what many around him deemed to be enough evidence to charge them with crimes.
“Blades which can be surreptitiously flicked open with one hand are dangerous weapons that do not belong on city streets and subways,” Vance’s spokeswoman, Joan Vollero, said in a statement.
Vance has contended that his office dismisses cases where defendants ostensibly possess gravity knives for non-malicious purposes. Electricians, construction workers, and other professionals commonly use them, for instance. But Vance’s prosecution record paints a profoundly different story.
From The Daily Beast:
Take the case of Richard Gonzalez, a laborer Vance prosecuted in 2011 for the Husky utility knife he bought at Home Depot. The tool he had in his possession is exceedingly common, and generally used to cut drywall. Its exposed blade is about an inch long. When he was contacted by police in a subway station, Gonzalez wasn’t accused of using the knife to harm anyone, or even threatening to do so. But when an officer spotted it in his pocket, and found that it could be snapped open with a flick, he was arrested. Vance prosecuted Gonzalez’ case aggressively, and he ultimately served four years in state prison.
Four years in state prison for possessing a knife purchased from Home Depot doesn’t exactly fit the definition of common sense, and a bipartisan coalition in New York’s legislature has consistently sought to reform the 1958 law so that gravity knives are no longer considered illegal.
“Make no mistake, this veto will have real life consequences for New York families,” said Assemblyman Dan Quart, one of the reform bill’s co-sponsors. “Electricians, plumbers, laborers and many more have shared their stories of ending up with a criminal record or in Rikers Island due to carrying a work tool they bought in a local hardware store. We could have prevented these results and put an end to these discriminatory prosecutions.”