Saturday, July 15, 2017

Remembering Freddie Gray: Racism and recent changes to state laws in Texas and Michigan

I sometimes do weird posts on weekends.  This will be a weird one.  The latest news on the Trump/Russia collusion doesn't add much to what we already knew, and the Senate is still just futzing around, so I'm going to write something different.  Remember Freddie Gray?  The guy in Baltimore whom racist cops beat to death for having the wrong color of skin?  I know, it's hard to keep track of which innocent black guy was murdered by which batch of racist cops...  Anyway, there's more to it.  Let's talk about that.

Topics to be covered in this post include interesting issues like federalism, public policy design, pocket knife engineering, and the despicable evils of racism and musical theater.

Texas and Michigan just passed a pair of interesting laws.  They repealed state bans on switchblades.  This matters more than you think it does.  First, a definition, because this is kind of critical here.  You may think you know what a switchblade is.  You probably don't.  Switchblades are appealing to "mall ninjas," but scary to others, and that leads to bans, but in order to ban something, you have to define it.  Problems invariably ensue.

Short version:  any knife with a button in the handle that triggers a mechanism that releases the blade.  The button being in the handle is critical because every major advance in the design of pocket knives, in terms of ease of deployment, has been aimed at creating a way to deploy the blade just as easily as a switchblade without putting a button in the handle.

For about half a century, federal laws have restricted sales across state lines of "switchblades."  That's what the federal government can do.  Why?  Federalism.  Congress can regulate interstate commerce, but flat-out banning something?  Constitutional problems ensue.  However, many states and localities have had even more restrictive laws.  Why?  Are switchblades actually, truly dangerous?  They are actually less dangerous as weapons than any other knife, for two reasons.  First, you know that clicky noise they make?  That's called a clue that you are about to be attacked.  That makes them the exact opposite of stealthy.  Any weapon intended as an ambush weapon should, ya' know, try to not give warning that it is coming.  Second, switchblades are mechanically weak.  They operate with a spring.  That spring is, mechanically speaking, a potential failure point.  You know what you don't want on a weapon?  A failure point.  In fact, in order to make the mechanisms work, the blade almost has to have some either side-to-side or up-and-down movement when extended.  We call that "blade play."  Blade play is bad.  It means the knife is unsafe.  Unsafe is bad.  Switchblades are stupid.  They are ineffective and stupid.  And they are particularly bad as ambush weapons.  They are more dangerous than other knives, only to the person trying to wield them.

What use are they?  Really, they have no use.  None.  They are stupid and useless.  They are non-functional.  A knife is a tool-- the oldest tool, really, and a switchblade is an objectively bad tool.

Why, then, do we have so many laws against them even though a basic kitchen knife is more dangerous?  Notice, after all, that those knife attacks you keep seeing are done with kitchen knives, not switchblades.   There's a reason...

Anyway, the serious, but unfortunate answer is that it has more to do with works of fiction, like West Side Story than anyone wants to admit.  Switchblades=scary gangs.  Particularly non-white scary gangs.  Switchblade laws started right after West Side Story came out.  Yes, really.

And yet, engineers are clever.  Don't tell them that, but they are clever.  Want to see how knife design has evolved in response?  Remember I said that the definition of a switchblade is that the button to trigger the mechanism to release the blade is in the handle.  The most popular design to mimic a switchblade without being a switchblade is what we call a "flipper."  The way a flipper works is that the blade is held shut by the "detent" of the locking mechanism, and you press on the back of the blade, which extends out from the handle until you overcome the detent, and the knife blade just flies out.  A properly designed and constructed flipper doesn't just open as easily as a switchblade, it does so without any springs, so you get rid of the failure points, and it does so without any "blade play."  A properly designed flipper is superior to a switchblade in every way.   The most mechanically interesting flipper I have seen is this one-- the Smock SK-23.  I'm embedding a pair of videos by engineering knife geek, Nick Shabazz (PhD., Engineering, although a different kind of engineering), one reviewing the knife, and one disassembling it and reassembling it, to show you how it works.  This one does have a button in the handle, but the button doesn't trigger a mechanism to release the blade, like a switchblade.  Instead, you use a "flipper tab" to open the blade, and then the button disengages the lock to close the blade.  It's a reverse switchblade.  Spectacular engineering, and it makes a total mockery of switchblade laws because it is just as easy to deploy as any switchblade, but with none of the mechanical flaws.  It is better than a switchblade, but may never have been invented were it not for stupid switchblade laws!

Cool engineering, right?  This is what happens when you try to ban something.  You must define it.  Then, someone finds a loophole.  How many times has this played out?

Which brings me to the restrictions that Texas and Michigan just lifted.  Until recently, Texas and Michigan had restrictions on switchblades, or, "automatic knives."  Why should anyone care?  After all, aren't there way cooler knives anyway, like the "Smock SK-23," and of course, plenty of cheaper options?

Here is why you should care, aside from the general issue of not having silly laws on the books.

Picture, in your mind's eye, the kind of person arrested for a knife law violation.  Do you picture some big, burly redneck fuck?  Maybe a biker or a neo-nazi?  WRONG.

Here is the face you should imagine

Yup, that's Freddie Gray.  It took a long time to get there, but that's him.  When the Baltimore cops decided to hassle him, it was over a "spring-assisted knife," which was actually legal in Maryland.  Basically, the way that type of thing works is that the knife remains closed until you add enough force to either a thumb stud or flipper tab, then a spring takes over and opens the blade the rest of the way.  Stupid toys, but still...  The fucking racist pigs were looking for a reason to beat the living shit out of him.  So, they called it an illegal knife, even though it was legal, used that as their excuse, and Freddie Gray wound up dying of injuries received in the process.

His knife was legal and he still died because of how cops handle knife laws.  At least when the owner of said knife is black.

Oh, and remember that the real knife attacks are done with kitchen knives, not pocket knives anyway.

Knife laws are... unevenly enforced.  Why?  Because they're so obviously a joke.  Here in Ohio, state laws are basically, "whatever the cop says," and local laws change as soon as you cross a suburban line.  One of my default knives to carry is my Chris Reeve Small Sebenza 21 (Nick Shabazz hates this knife, but he's allowed to be wrong...).   The blade is under 3 inches, because really, who the hell needs a fuckin' bowie knife?  Compensate much, you fuckin' Texans?!  Yeah, I'm messin' with you!  However, there are places where even my Sebenza is illegal because there are places where a blade can't be longer than 2.5 inches.  Really, though, are the cops going to hassle a white guy wearing a button-down shirt and a blazer carrying a Sebenza?

No.  I, as a white guy, can carry a knife that is technically illegal, with little fear.  My Chris Reeve Mnandi has a 2.75 inch blade, and Cleveland-proper technically has a law against anything over 2.5 inches, although there are loopholes.  Still, are the cops going to break out a ruler and measure my... Mnandi?  No.  Does the term, "white privilege" ring a bell?  However, cops might use a cheap, spring-assisted opener as an excuse to beat some black kid to death.  Like they did to Freddie Gray.  (Hell, they shot Tamir Rice to death for a toy).  And that's the real point about these laws, or did you forget where this started?  These laws are about race, and they always were.  Switchblades are non-functional toys.  Please don't buy or carry one.  You are more likely to hurt yourself than accomplish anything with it, and even the terrorists and criminals know that they aren't any use for an attack.  That's why they keep using kitchen knives.  Knowing something about the history of these laws, though, is important, as well as how they are really enforced.

Freddie Gray was killed by racist cops, but they used knife laws as their excuse.  Laws against switchblades and spring-assisted knives don't even make the SK-23 illegal.  They just give cops the pretense to beat black kids to death if they think the kid might be carrying the wrong kind of knife, or at least decide to claim that.  Me?  My skin color protects me even if I cross the wrong suburban line with the wrong knife.

Texas and Michigan just made some progress, though.  Still, be careful in Ohio, where the laws are an inconsistent mess.  Unfortunately, what you can get away with carrying isn't about the law as much as the color of your skin.

That was dark.  Here's some bonus country music...


  1. You don't think people use kitchen knives because they're insanely convenient? Not just in design, but in ubiquity and proximity to the person when they got angered to do violence?

    Are kitchen knives that much more common in pre-planned acts of malice?

    1. Actually, yes, they are pretty much the exclusive weapon of choice for pre-planned acts of malice, like those "mow people down with a vehicle then jump out and stab them" attacks. Those are done with kitchen knives, and the attackers make a conscious choice. That really is design. Why? 1) Fixed-blade knives won't collapse in an attack. 2) Chef's knives and similar designs have protection that prevent the attacker's hand from slipping forward onto the blade, which some folding knives have, but most don't, and very few "automatic knives" do. You actually have to pay a truly insane amount for an "automatic knife" with a design that has the kind of finger protection that you get with a standard kitchen knife. And, since kitchen knives really are the clear favored weapon for those kinds of pre-planned attack, no, it isn't just that they reach for what's handy.

    2. But those attacks don't prioritize the concealability of the weapon. Could bring anything inside the car.

      I would think the point of a switchblade is that you can keep it in your pocket (hidden) until you want to threaten someone. Of course, the same goes for the various tricks you talked about to get around the restriction, but it would seem to me that (in addition to race) they are targeting a certain kind of street crime by going after easily concealed knives.

      Does anyone get mugged with a 10" chef's knife? The "pre-planned acts of malice" I meant was street crime.

      Take these less as hostile questions and more innocently. Knives are the #2 tool for murder in the US, but pretty far behind guns.

    3. There aren't publicly available statistics on the precise knife types used in basic street crime. High-profile, terrorist-type attacks using knives, that information gets out, and you better believe that people like me care about the information, but it is hard to get any real information on the types of knives used in muggings, so that I can't tell you with a high degree of confidence. I'd bet against 10" chef's knives, but I'd also bet against switchblades, not because of the efficacy of any legal restrictions (getting a switchblade has never been hard), but because of knife choice. Anyone looking for a knife with which to commit a crime has to think about finger protection, and the other issues I've mentioned. If I had to bet, I'd bet on a combination of cheap-o fixed-blade knives from sporting goods stores and what get sold as "tactical" folding knives, which are usually of the "flipper" variety, which have the flipper tab turn into a finger guard once the knife is extended. If you want to see what it looks like on a high-end knife, look for a picture of something like the Olamic Wayfarer, which is way too expensive for someone using a knife for a mugging, but you'll see how the flipper tab turns into a finger guard, demonstrating once again how flippers are superior in every way to switchblades. For stealth, though, flippers still have the problem of that sound. They make the same clicky sound as switchblades, which give warning, whereas a fixed-blade can just be concealed underneath clothing, particularly if it is some cheap hunting knife from a sporting-goods store. That will come with a sheath, so the assailant doesn't have to worry about the knife stabbing him while it's hidden. Really, though, even a kitchen knife can be hidden in a small paper bag, like you're carrying some recent shopping. That's the thing about a knife. Even a fixed-blade isn't difficult to conceal, and that way, there's no warning sound when the blade is deployed because the blade is already deployed.

    4. I would think that making a noise would be a plus once it comes to the level of using the knife in those circumstances.

      The only time you need a knife to be THAT quiet (no knife makes THAT much noise) is if you want to kill someone quietly. (For which, I refer you to:

    5. If you want to make noise for shock value, you can do that with your voice. If you want a knife that makes a scary noise, a flipper makes the same noise as a switchblade, so again, I don't see the point of switchblades. (You can hear the noise in the video above about the SK-23). My point remains-- switchblade laws are pointless, and do nothing but give cops an excuse to harass and sometimes murder innocent black kids.
      With respect to The Onion's Navy SEAL... I am unimpressed. Ka-Bars are junk knives. Of course, I'm a snob who carries Chris Reeve knives, so of course I'd say something like that, like the hipster douchebag that I am. (Trust me, or look it up. Chris Reeve fanboys are hipster douchebags).