Thursday, November 06, 2008

A knife ban is OK if the police have 'a lot of discretion'

Heaven help us!

Politicians in the city of Worcester, Massachusetts -- Wormtown, to those of us who attended college there and ruined our hearing listening to punk bands at Ralph's -- propose to ban the possession in public of knives with blades longer than 1.5 inches. The ban follows a rise in after-hours stabbings among the city's bar- and club-goers from 85 in 2006 to a projected 148 this year. (Strange but true: a popular New England regional band of the 1980s was called Rash of Stabbings.) The idea seems to be that if you forbid the carrying of sharp pieces of metal, the people committing the mayhem will slap themselves on the forehead and say, "Oh hell, I guess I can't commit attempted murder tonight cuz I might get fined for carrying a pocket knife."

If that doesn't strike you as a convincing line of reasoning, that's probably because you're working your brain a bit harder than the members of the Worcester city council. And if you saw that 1.5-inch limit, went to measure your own knives and discovered that the shortest knife in your collection doesn't make the ... err ... cut, you realize that the law isn't just doomed to fail, it's also so overreaching as to cover just about anything useful with an edge.

But the fact that the law is unlikely to deter actual criminals and goes too far is overshadowed by the rationale for posing such a strict ban that's likely to scoop up people going about perfectly innocent business. According to District 3 Councilor Paul P. Clancy Jr:
"We have a zero tolerance for these weapons in our schools and now we need to extend it out into the community," Mr. Clancy said. "This is an ordinance the council needs to pass. It will make it a safer community for all."

That's right, the knife ban is based on the same mindless zero-tolerance policies that have sent middle-school kids to jail for writing scary stories and gotten them strip-searched for possessing ibuprofen. Schools have had such excellent results with draconian restrictions on everything from behavior to expression to drugs to weapons that a city is now going to emulate policies that have become standard radio and blog fodder for condemnation and ridicule. Knives are bad, mmmkay?

But some people -- actually, a lot of people -- need knives to go about their jobs, pursue hobbies, or for recreational activities like fishing, camping and hunting. Are they supposed to chew through twine and rope?

Well, I guess that depends on whether the police officer who stops you with an illicit blade feels his spidey senses tingling, or whether his hemorrhoids are acting up, or whether he likes your kind of people.
While some councilors were concerned about the impact of the ordinance might have on those who carry such knives for personal use or recreation, District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. assured the councilors it would be targeted primarily at the after-hours bar and nightclub crowds where there has been an outbreak of knife-related violence. He emphasized that the police would have a lot of discretion in enforcing the law to assure that people aren't wrongly caught up in its net.

Translation: To find out if it's OK to carry a knife to your job, give it a try. If you end up on the wrong end of an arrest, you guessed wrong!

You know, I have the feeling that DA Early and his buddies are probably pretty safe carrying their cigar cutters to the office, but that the law might be enforced just a bit more stringently against regular folks on the street. And that's a big problem.

Look, aside from the wisdom of any given rule, to be able to stay on the right side of the law you have to know where that right side begins and ends. A draconian law that is tempered only by the whims of its enforcers means that everybody is subject to arrest if they displease the authorities. That's not the way free societies work.

Ultimately, as we've discovered in our schools, zero-tolerance regimes end up as a free hand given to officials. Laws that insanely restrictive are no laws at all -- they're just absolute grants of power to the people with badges and government paychecks. Stay on their good side, and they'll exercise discretion in your favor; cross them and you're done. Ultimately, under the sort of law contemplated in Worcester, there is no way to stay legal; staying out of trouble requires currying favor -- or entirely avoiding that jurisdiction. I guess I won't be visiting Ralph's anytime soon.

Original report here

(And don't forget your ration of Wicked Thoughts for today)

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