Friday, June 12, 2015

Knives in New York: A Fashion Statement That Can Get You Arrested

So this blog entry is really more of a grumble rant, and a public service announcement.

This lovely, and amazingly well made knife, is a Sebenza 21.  It would cost you around $425 dollars.  The blade is a hair under 3 inches long.  It is one of the knives described in the New York Times article, and if you carried it in New York City, it could get you arrested.

A few days ago the New York Times published an article about pocket knives, the web version is titled "It's a Jungle Out There?  Carry a Pocketknife."  This just struck me as seriously irresponsible journalism since carrying a knife in New York City is a good way to get arrested.  The Village Voice ran an article last year about how the NYPD has been using a vaguely worded 1950's law against gravity knives (an extremely uncommon type of knife) to prosecute 60,000 people in the last decade.  These thousands of people who have been prosecuted for "gravity knife" violations have largely been prosecuted for carrying knives that are readily available in NYC, and are in no way gravity knives.  Then this week the NYTimes publishes an article about pocket knives as a fashion accessory and the closest they come to warning readers that this fashion trend is very risky for New Yorkers is:
"In the right hands, pocketknives can be more than fashion accessories (they can also be illegal to carry, depending on local laws)."
That doesn't seem like a very adequate warning that in New York City, if a police officer sees a pocket clip it constitutes grounds for searching you, and if the police officer can manage to make your knife open through "centrifugal force" in any number of attempts (and it has a locking mechanism), then you are then guilty of a crime.  Never mind that "centrifugal force" doesn't actually exist, this means that almost any modern folding knife with a lock is a "gravity knife" by the interpretation the NYPD and New York prosecutors have been operating under.  I really feel like the New York Times should at least warn people that getting into this fashion trend with most of the knives described in the article can get them arrested.

This is kind of an ongoing point of discontent for me.  New York City is a place that I visit from time to time, and it is the only city that I go to where I just do not carry a knife at all.  I typically think of a pocket knife as a necessary daily tool, plus if an emergency pops up, like someone is trapped in a burning car, it gives me the ability to help.  But not in New York.  As far as I am concerned, the likelihood of having a negative interaction with a police officer in New York is enough higher than the chances that someone will need rescuing by me that I opt to not carry anything.

Theoretically there are knives that are totally legal in NYC, like Swiss Army Knives, or other types of traditional slip-joint or friction folders that are three inches long or shorter.  But as far as I can tell, if a police officer decides that you had malicious intent, even those knives are illegal.  There are no concealed carry permits in New York, and there is no way to get licensed to carry a knife.  Technically carrying a knife is fine and legal, unless an officer decides that you shouldn't be carrying one.

This type of situation where it is up to the police officer to make the call as to whether or not your pocketknife is a weapon is pretty scary to me.  In practical terms, as a white man, I really am not at much risk, since white people only account for 11% of arrests for knives, and even when stopped and frisked for knives white people are twice as likely to be let off with a warning as be arrested.  So, in reality, I probably would not run into trouble...  but I still am uncomfortable with the idea.
Voice analysis of stop-and-frisk data shows wide racial disparities in arrest rates for knives. Gravity-knife arrests are not tracked as a class, which makes it impossible to determine an exact number of such arrests. The Voice's analysis of stop-and-frisk data is based on a pool of knife arrests involving sections 265.01 and 265.02 of the Penal Code -- the statutes that contain the gravity-knife prohibition -- excluding arrests that involved any other kind of weapon or criminal charge. The result is a conservative estimate of the number of arrests under the program, informed by extensive reporting.  From the Village Voice. 

From the Village Voice
But this kind of New York law does not end with folding knives.  There is a proposed "ban" on machetes in New York, that is not a ban at all.  It is a law that would make machetes "deadly weapons."  That would mean that machetes would be legal to own and use, until it was decided that a specific one was not okay, then it would be a deadly weapon.  But the law would only apply to fixed blade knives with blades longer than four inches.  If this law was passed, and if it was not misapplied, then it would be fine.  People who attack other people with machetes should be charged with attacking people with a deadly weapon.  Machetes absolutely can be deadly.  I also use a machete regularly for landscaping.  The machete is a ubiquitous tool.

But the machete "ban" like the "gravity knife ban" is vaguely worded.  Most people have sturdy fixed blade knives over four inches in their kitchens.  And there are not many hunting knives that would not also meet the criteria.  The village voice seems to think that it is a "conservative freak-out" to think that this ban would be misapplied by the police.  But when a 1950's law designed to combat the terror of youth gangs can be misapplied half a century later to justify "stop and frisk" searches it seems like a scary law to me.  The thought that immediately comes to my mind is a way to justify searches of homes, if nothing else comes up, there is usually a knife that could be determined to be a deadly weapon.

But maybe that is just needless hand-wringing about a law that is not even an actual law, just a proposed law.

But for what it's worth, if you are thinking about carrying a pocket knife, be sure to find out what the laws where you live are.  There are a lot of places where it is illegal to carry a locking blade knife, especially out East.  There are also a lot of places where it is illegal to carry a knife in your pocket (they have to be on your belt or clipped to the outside of your pocket).  And knife laws are variable from state to state and city to city.

The good news is that for the most part, police in most places don't make a habit of randomly searching people and arresting them for having pocket knives.  If you are not doing stupid things with your pocket knife, you probably won't have trouble with the police about your knife.  Most cops I've known don't run around looking for reasons to make people's lives harder.  But it is still better to be safe and legal.

But if you live in New York City, I would think very seriously and do some research before considering carrying a knife.

Be careful, be safe, and be legal.  And shame on you New York Times for providing no warning.

P.S,  I love that the top picture in the New York Times article was of a guy batoning a log in Los Angeles.  With a folding knife.  Batoning, it's so hot right now.


  1. Living and flying (passenger) in Alaska for many years (long ago), I learned to wear and carry survival gear. I made sure I had food, warm clothes, good boots, matches or a lighter and a small knife on me, in my parka pockets. Even in summer. When that became illegal I felt flying became unsafe. If the plane went down, how was I supposed to survive! I fully expected to survive a plane going down on flat, no trees tundra, but did not expect an immediate recovery.

    Now I have to hope there is telephone service and carry a fully charged phone with me on the plane.


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