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The Consequences of Prohibition (of Knives)

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The Baltimore police now imply Freddie Gray's arrest was necessary because he was carrying an illegal knife. But why are taxpayers paying the government to arrest people for carrying knives? What about the right to own and bear knives? 

The defense offered by the now-indicted police officers in the Freddie Gray case will likely at least touch on their claim that Gray was carrying an illegal knife. Gray was allegedly carrying a switchblade, which is — apparently — illegal (under federal law, no less). As Steve Chapman notes: "Even if it was, Gray's possession of the knife wouldn't justify his being chased and arrested, since the police had no grounds to suspect he had it."

In any case, we're left asking ourselves why the state claims for itself the authority to confiscate personal property without due process if that property happens to be a spring-loaded knife. In a country where hand guns are pretty easy to come by, a prohibition on knives as an essential safety measure strikes one as absurd, if not laughable. Chapman also writes: "Switchblades are no more lethal than any other knife, and the automatic opening is not likely to make a difference to a criminal intent on mayhem. On the other hand, that feature makes them useful to anyone (say, a handyman or hunter) who needs to open a knife with one hand." 

Moreover, thanks to general acceptance of prohibition of yet another type of personal property, one can easily run afoul of the law while behaving in a perfectly peaceful manner and without even knowing that one is in violation of the law (since common sense would indicate that one is in compliance with the law). For example, one doesn't need to have an illegal knife to be convicted of having an illegal knife under ambiguous New York laws

The Sheffield utility knife Neal had in his pocket is the kind of thing sold at hardware and sporting-goods stores all over the city. At the time, that model and ones more or less identical to it were stocked at Auto Zone, Pep Boys, Home Depot, Paragon Sports, and several other reputable hardware and outdoor-gear shops in the five boroughs. It's the kind of thing your outdoorsy uncle might carry. Today you can buy one on Amazon for less than 15 bucks.

Neal says he didn't start worrying that night until the officer used the term "gravity knife." He'd never heard that phrase before. And he really started to worry when the officer explained that his little Sheffield could land him in prison -- for years.

Neal ended that night in a squad car. There was only one problem: The knife he was carrying was not a gravity knife. At least, not by most of the world's definition.

Nonetheless, under the [NYPD's] unique interpretation of Penal Code 265.01, almost every pocketknife on the market today can be considered a gravity knife...

The penalties are severe, too, as Neal would learn. As a prior offender, he was eligible for a felony "bump up," rendering the pocketknife Neal possessed the legal equivalent of an unlicensed, unloaded pistol. Though the court said he likely had no idea his knife was illegal, and he wasn't accused of using it toward any nefarious end, he was convicted nonetheless.

After a series of appeals, he was sentenced to six years in prison.

Needless to say, gravity knives are no more deadly than any other knife, but that doesn't stop people from landing in prison for years for carrying one, or even carrying a knife that isn't a gravity knife at all, apparently. As noted here, many police departments have incentives for officers to harass and arrest citizens for petty infractions such as these. 

UPDATE: reader SP adds some nuance to the legality of these knives: 

The federal law only prohibits interstate commerce in automatic knives (switchblades). It says nothing about possessing them. 
States are left on their own in terms of defining legality for switchblades, as are cities and towns.  For example, switchblades are legal to own in many states, but illegal to carry in many localities.
Different from switchblades and gravity knives are many types of "one hand opening" and "assisted opening" knives - popular manufacturers include Spyderco and Kershaw.  "Gravity" knives are actually quite uncommon, as most knife users prefer the one hand and assisted opening knives.

Interestingly, I also see that Oklahoma just legalized switchblades.


Contact Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and The Austrian, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado and was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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