Know Your Knife Rights: Why The L.A. Shooting Victim Wasn’t Killed Because Of His Swiss Army Knife

Last night, a Black man in Los Angeles was fatally shot by police officers for carrying a Swiss Army knife. Before I proceed, I want to be clear that someone called the police for assault with a deadly weapon. Perhaps he did assault someone, and in that case, it would be reasonable to arrest him. A bystander said that the man was his friend, and that he liked to “wave a knife to scare tourists.” That’s stupid, that’s possibly arrestable, but there’s no reason that man should be dead.

It’s a Swiss Army knife. One man with a Swiss Army knife against what looks like it could be up to 10 cops has no chance of actually hurting them. The cops shot him not because they knew for sure that he had done anything wrong, because they didn’t, but because he was carrying a knife. And h was Black.

Let’s talk about knife rights for a second. I’m hoping that this is a subject that will bring people of all different political persuasions together. I happen to be pretty far into leftism and believe wholeheartedly in knife rights, as does R. Lee Ermey (the Gunnery Sergeant in “Full Metal Jacket”), who’s afraid of socialists, just to give an example. The Knife Rights movement website has some really racist language on it (“knife-wielding thugs or street-gang members” are apparently beyond the people they want to protect), and I’m not going to dance around that, but I am going to appropriate their knowledge.

You have the right to carry knives. There are state laws that limit what kinds of knives you can carry, but you have the right to carry them. In Illinois, for example, you can’t have a blade that’s longer than 2 inches, you can’t carry a switchblade but an assisted switch is fine, and the knife can’t be disguised as something else (like a cane, or lipstick). In California, the knife laws are a little more more relaxed: You can carry any knife, of any size, open or concealed, but it can’t be a stilletto or dirk, and it can’t be disguised.

You can look up your state’s pertinent knife laws here. The California page states the following about the intent of the law: “What the law is trying to get at are knives usually used by criminals to commit crimes. These are knives that don’t look like knives or don’t have a use as a tool. For example, you can’t do much with a dagger besides stab things.” Can we repeat again that this man was carrying a Swiss Army knife? Can we also repeat that the police had no idea whether or not he had actually done anything wrong and couldn’t have known without questioning him, but that instead of using their manpower to disarm him of a Swiss Army knife they chose to shoot him instead?

I’m well aware of the fact that a knife can be deadlier than a gun, but that’s only true within arm’s reach and before the gun is drawn (it’s faster to draw a knife than to draw and aim a gun). So here are my questions: How far away was the man from the police officers? And were their guns already drawn? Was he a credible threat to their lives for merely having a Swiss Army knife in his hand?

Here’s why I carry knives: The police are under no obligation to prevent crimes. The Supreme Court decided this in 1958 in Riss v. New York and in 1981 in Warren v. District of Columbia, by an appellate court in 1982 in Bowers v. DeVito, again by the Supreme Court in 1989 in DeShaney v. Winnebago County, by a North Carolina court of appeals in 1989 in Lynch v. N.C. Department of Justice, by a Wisconsin appellate court in 1994 in Barillari v. City of Milwaukee, by a Massachusetts appellate court in 1998 in Ford v. Town of Grafton, and by the Supreme Court again in 2005 in Bell v. Thompson. Again, the police are under no obligation to prevent crimes from happening. They are under no obligation to protect you from harm.

The man who was shot in L.A. was arming himself to be a dickhead to tourists and should have been arrested. But if we operate under the presumption that the only factor involved in his shooting was the fact that he was carrying a knife, and we apply that broadly, then the argument basically goes, “The police don’t have to protect you, so you have to protect yourself; however, you can’t protect yourself by arming yourself with even a non-ballistic weapon, or the police have the right to shoot to kill you because it makes you look suspect. Good luck!” And that’s problematic on its own.

But that’s only if we operate under the presumption that the knife was why this man was killed. Looking at patterns of police behavior, it should go without saying that that isn’t the case: They shot him because a knife might be threatening, but a Black man with a knife is a deadly threat, in their perception. If Mike Brown was worth shooting because he was running toward a police officer, and if Eric Garner was worth choking to death because he was a large man, and Rumain Brisbon was worth shooting because he had gotten into an unarmed altercation with a cop and had a pill bottle in his pocket that felt to the cop like the handle of a gun, then god help if a Black man has a knife — even if it is literally the dinkiest of all knives.

When cops see White people, they respect the fact of their lives whether or not they’re armed. We know this, because we know that Cliven Bundy was not shot despite the fact that he armed himself and his ranchers with the intent to kill law enforcement officers if necessary. We know this, because we know that James Eagen Holmes shot and killed 12 people, and injured 58, in a movie theatre and was arrested but not shot, and not killed =- that was in 2012, and he’s still awaiting trial while his sanity is evaluated. We know this, because we know Jared Lee Loughner shot a United States Representative of Congress in the head and killed six other people, including a 9-year-old girl, and was arrested, but was not shot and not killed. It is not the act of carrying a weapon that actually makes a person dangerous enough to shoot to kill in the eyes of law enforcement: It is the act of being Black.

I’m tired as hell of all of this. I’m 1100 words into an article about why Black American citizens should have the same right as White American citizens to arm themselves without being told that they’ll be shot and killed by the police. Is that necessary? It seems so, from rationalizations of this nonsense murder just overnight. I don’t know how many Black bodies are going to have to pile up before, as a country, we stop pretending that this isn’t a pattern.



[Knife Rights]


[CaseBriefs (1), (2)]

[Caselaw (1), (2)]

[Leagle (1), (2)]


[New York Times (1), (2)]


[New Yorker]


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