A bill that would decriminalize the possession of some pocket knives has been stalled in the New York Senate for more than two years, and the main roadblock has been an ardent supporter of the Second Amendment, the I-Team has learned.
In 2013, Sen. Michael Nozzolio, a Republican who represents Seneca Falls and chairs the Codes Committee, voted against New York's SAFE Act gun control legislation, which was passed in the middle of the night that January in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
A website for Nozzolio, who has sponsored numerous bills to repeal gun control measures, says “the so-called SAFE Act violates the freedoms of law-abiding gun owners” and “law-abiding firearms owners are not the cause of the problem.”
Gov. Cuomo has described the law as the "toughest" gun control law in the country.
Despite Nozzolio's pro-gun positions, the senator has seemed to apply much different logic to otherwise law-abiding citizens who own knives, the I-Team has found.
In 2013, the same year he voted against the SAFE Act, Nozzolio prevented a bill that would legalize certain pocket knives from advancing out of his committee. The bill would make it legal to possess a gravity knife, a blade that can be flipped out of its handle using centrifugal force, produced by a sweeping motion of the arm or snapping of the wrist, as long as the carrier has no intent to use the knife for a crime.
For years, the pro-knife group KnifeRights.org has lobbied state legislatures to decriminalize gravity knives on the basis the U.S. Constitution protects a citizen's right to carry pocket knives for utility and self-defense.
"Knife rights is the second front in defense of our Second Amendment," said Doug Ritter, president and founder of KnifeRights.org. "The Second Amendment doesn’t say ‘firearms.’ It says ‘arms.’"
On Monday, after questions from the I-Team, Nozzolio said he does believe the Second Amendment protects the right of citizens to carry pocket knives. He said he initially held up the knife bill in his committee because of opposition from prosecutors.
“We’ve seen opposition from the New York district attorney. That was the primary reason it hadn’t been advanced to this point,” Nozzolio said.
Joan Vallero, a spokeswoman for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, denied he ever lobbied on the gravity knife bill.
"The Manhattan DA’s Office generally opposes outright decriminalization of weapons that can be used as instruments of violent crime, but has not actively opposed this bill,” Vollero wrote in an email to the I-Team. “We would support legislation that allows for people with bona fide needs for gravity knives to get permits to carry them.”
Last month, the I-Team revealed the NYPD has arrested tens of thousands of people in the last decade for carrying gravity knives, but only about 18.5 percent of minor weapons arrests have resulted in convictions. Most of the arrests have ended with adjournments, dismissals,or pleas to non-criminal violations, the I-Team found.
In response to that I-Team report, detective Cheryl Crispin, a police spokeswoman, said “the NYPD enforces the law based on the NYS Penal Law.”
Civil rights attorneys and public defenders have argued police often stretch the gravity knife provision of the penal law, allowing officers to stop anyone seen with a pocket knife clipped to a belt. In some cases, officers have been accused of practicing their wrist and arm techniques so they can flip blades out of their handles -- thereby establishing traditional folding knives as illegal gravity knives.
Last month, Bernard Perez, an electrician from Brooklyn, filed a civil rights complaint against the NYPD alleging his arrest for a gravity knife in the 75th Precinct was bogus. After a traffic stop last September, officers searched his car and found a folding knife. They arrested Perez for possessing an illegal gravity knife, but the suit claims the officer couldn’t open the knife with one hand, even though he made “approximately 15 efforts over the course of several minutes.”
According to a court transcript from January 6, Assistant District Attorney Kate Collins asked to dismiss the case in the interest of justice, saying, "We conducted a test of the gravity knife in question in my office this morning, and the gravity knife did not open with centrifugal force. We are satisfied that the knife is not a gravity knife.”
“The law is being badly administered in that police officers are pretending knives are gravity knives when in fact they are not,” said Joel Berger, who represents Perez in the false arrest lawsuit.
A spokesperson for the New York City Law Department declined to comment on Perez’s lawsuit.
While legislation to reform the gravity knife law has been hung up in the New York Senate, Assemblyman Dan Quart, a Democrat who represents the Upper East Side, has been able to pass companion legislation twice in the New York Assembly. He criticizes pro-gun lawmakers who want to relax restrictions on firearms, while thousands of people are arrested for possessing folding knives.
“Knives are used in kitchens to cut sandwiches. No one is cutting a ham sandwich with a .38-caliber pistol,” Quart said.
After questions from the I-Team, Nozzolio said he would release the knife bill out of his Codes Committee, but with the legislative session about to expire the bill’s prospects are unclear.
“In these few days of the session remaining, we are going to see a review of the measure. The bill has been reported to the Rules Committee and we will see a detailed analysis there,” said Nozzolio.
Senate President and Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican who represents East Northport, controls the Rules Committee. It's clear if he will allow a vote in the full Senate on the knife bill.
Scott Reif, a spokesman for Flanagan, sent the I-Team an email saying the knife bill is still being examined and “no determination has been made on the bill.”
Flanagan did not say whether he personally supports or opposes the knife bill.
Many pro-gun rights lawmakers have remained silent on the issue of knife rights.
The I-Team inquired with all 16 sitting state senators who voted against the SAFE Act gun control law in 2013. Four of the pro-gun rights senators responded, saying they favor decriminalizing gravity knives. The other 13 did not respond.
Those in favor of the knife reform are Sen. Betty Little (R-Plattsburgh), Sen. James Seward (R-Oneonta), and Senator Patrick Gallivan (R - Elma) and Sen. Carl Marcellino (R- Oyster Bay).
In an email, Sen. Little said “gravity knives” are one of many tools used by tradespeople, but “the threat isn’t from those who use these in the course of work, but those who might use them to threaten or harm someone. And those people generally disregard the law anyway.”