By Jake Offenhartz
May 31, 2019
Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill on Thursday to decriminalize gravity knives, following years of pressure from criminal justice advocates and a recent federal court ruling that found the existing law to be overly vague.
The legislation will end the criminal prohibition on certain folding pocket knives, which are commonly sold in stores across New York, but have been illegal to possess in the state since 1958. Progressive activists, public defenders and some elected officials have long argued that the ban unfairly targets blue-collar service employees—including construction workers, chefs, and day laborers—who use folding knives for work.
Evidence also suggests the law has been disproportionately enforced against people of color: analyses from both the Legal Aid Society and the Village Voice found that the vast majority of people charged with gravity knife possession in New York are black and Hispanic.
In recent years, the state legislature has twice passed legislation to decriminalize the knives, which Cuomo has vetoed on both occasions. Efforts to lift the ban were strongly opposed by the NYPD and police unions, as well as prosecutors such as Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance. In a statement on Thursday, the governor said that "uniform opposition of the State's law enforcement entities and mayors" had left him "constrained to veto similar bills."
So, what's changed? The legal landscape, according to Cuomo. Specifically, the governor cited a federal court ruling this past March that found the law to be unconstitutionally vague. In that decision, Manhattan U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty harshly criticized the unreliable “wrist-flick test"—an imprecise standard used by both the NYPD and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance to see whether the folding knives require force to open.
"While I remain aware of the cautious community voices, I cannot veto a bill passed by the Legislature to address a decided constitutional infirmity in existing law, as recently affirmed by a federal court," Cuomo said.
Advocates and elected officials celebrated the reversal, while at the same time wondering why the governor spent so long upholding a ban that he now deems "absurd."
“As someone who was arrested and spent time in jail for carrying a knife I used as a construction worker, I think this law should have been repealed long ago," said Mark Moses, a community leader with VOCAL-NY, in a statement. "That said, I’m glad the Governor finally signed this law so that others coming up behind me don’t need to go through what happened to me."
Added Assemblyman Dan Quart, who sponsored the bill, "The third time really is the charm. After 7 years, we have finally managed to overhaul New York’s outdated and discriminatory pocket knife ban."