Due to my family roots, as well as personal history with the area, I am still coming to grips with the violence that has unfolded in the city of Baltimore since the arrest and death of Freddie Gray. I don’t feel I am qualified to provide perspective on any elements of racial injustice, economic disparity, or institutional corruption present in these events, but I can look back at Gray’s arrest from the viewpoint of a law-abiding knife owner. The one aspect that should concern all of us is that he was arrested on charges of carrying a common pocket knife.
By now, this is a very minor detail in the overarching narrative, and I will grant that it is rather unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but it is something that I am able to talk about.
While there are details surrounding Gray’s arrest that are surely yet to emerge, we know that the officer saw a knife clipped to Gray’s pocket and it turned out to be a spring-assisted one-hand opening knife. This is where things get sticky.
Baltimore City code defines a switchblade as
“…any knife with an automatic spring or other device for opening and/or closing the blade…”
Ambiguous, much? As it is written, the nail nick on a traditional, non-locking slipjoint could be a “device for opening and/or closing the blade.” This is even worse than New York’s definition of a gravity knife if taken at face value.
The Village Voice, who have expertly chronicled the issue in NYC, had this to say about the Baltimore law:
The municipal code under which Gray was arrested resembles New York’s law in several ways, and its peculiar wording is equally ill-suited to modern technology; as we discovered when we looked at gravity knife laws in New York, knife statutes often have not kept up with current knife designs.
While news reports have described the knife Gray was carrying as a “switchblade,” the actual police report (see charging documents at the end of the linked article) describes it as a “spring assisted, one hand opening knife,” which has become among the most common on the market in recent years.
Popular models typically feature a “thumb stud” on the blade, designed for one-handed opening. The user starts opening the knife manually, and then a spring takes over, “assisting” in deploying the blade the rest of the way. Switchblades, by comparison, open with a button or switch contained in the handle of the knife.
Despite all of my research, and despite Baltimore being not far from my back door, even I was unaware of how bad their switchblade definition was until this story broke, and knives are my hobby! How is the average citizen to know?
This only serves to underscore the need for knife law preemption.
I go to great pains to make sure I am carrying knives that are legal in the jurisdictions I traverse. My own personal headache comes from a trip my girlfriend and I undertake a few times each year, traveling between suburban Washington D.C. on the Maryland side to southern New Hampshire for visits with family. The Granite State is a knife lovers paradise, but without the equivalent of the Firearm Owners Protection Act for knife owners, I have to worry about every jurisdiction in between.
D.C. has a 3” blade limit, Baltimore has their own restrictions as discussed, New Jersey must be approached with caution, you can forget a locking blade in New York city, and Boston has it’s own 2.5” blade limit. In the end I modified a Spyderco Urban Lightweight by shortening the blade to 2.5” and calling it a day, but I can’t be certain there isn’t someplace along the way where even that knife could get me in trouble.
It should not matter how long the blade is, or whether it has a safety lock, or if it opens with or without a spring, but I’m probably preaching to the choir at this point. More from the Village Voice article:
The legal distinctions made about how a knife opens are pretty empty — kitchen knives are probably responsible for more knife crimes than any other type. And both Baltimore and New York have some pretty nonsensical distinctions in their laws. Neither Baltimore nor the state of Maryland, for example, has a length restriction for folding knives. That means that a “spring assisted” knife with a 2.5 inch blade would be illegal, but a folding knife with a 12 inch blade would be fine. New York, similarly, allows knives that don’t fold — “fixed blade” knives — to be carried as long as they are under four inches, while a shorter knife that can be “flicked” could get you sent to prison.
Would knife law preemption mean Freddie Gray would be alive today? Perhaps not, but just maybe.