I was arrested for having nunchucks in New York. I’m glad the law was overturned.
When news broke last week that a federal judge had ruled a New York law banning possession of nunchucks unconstitutional, I felt vindicated. You see, as a teenager growing up in New York City in the 1980s, I was arrested and thrown in jail for illegal possession of nunchucks. Really.
During high school, I got into Bruce Lee martial-arts movies. Long before Mayor Rudy Giuliani turned Times Square into a family-friendly theme park, there was a movie theater on Broadway that showed nonstop kung-fu fare. Over summer break, I would go to see Lee movies such as “Game of Death,” “Fist of Fury” and “Enter the Dragon,” Lee’s last film before his death from cerebral edema at age 32 in 1973. The highlight of every Lee movie, for me, was when he picked up a pair of nunchucks — two short sticks connected by a steel swivel chain — and began swinging them around his body, taking out dozens of enemy fighters.
After the movie let out one afternoon, I went to a martial-arts store across the street from the theater and bought myself a pair of nunchucks. Unlike the hardwood pair Lee used, I bought a soft pair made of light plywood and covered in bright yellow foam so that when I swung them around and accidentally hit myself on the head, I wouldn’t knock myself out.
One day I was riding on the subway going to a friend’s house, quietly holding my nunchucks, when a police officer approached me. “Do you know those are illegal?” he asked. No, I told him, I didn’t. It hadn’t even occurred to me that possessing a pair of the foam-covered nunchucks could be against the law. But it turned out that New York state in 1974 had enacted a complete ban on the possession of nunchucks by private citizens.
The police officer told me to get off with him at the next stop. He pushed me against a wall, handcuffed me, threw me in a squad car and took me to the New York Transit Police station on Columbus Circle, where I was put into a cell with a bunch of drunks and booked on charges of a Class A misdemeanor, “criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree.”
I used my one call to phone my mother — a doctor who worked treating heroin addicts in the South Bronx. She came down to the station and berated the arresting officer in her thick Polish accent, offering to take him to Central Park and point him to all the drug dealers selling heroin there. Why didn’t he do something about them, rather than harassing a harmless teenager? She had to spend thousands of dollars to hire a lawyer, who told us that the charges were serious and that I could face jail time. We went to court, and he cut a deal to have the prosecution deferred. I stood before a judge who told me if I did not commit another crime in the next 12 months, the charges would be dropped and my arrest record expunged. Until then, I was a “juvenile offender.” I passed the time without incident and never picked up a pair of nunchucks again.
I have often wondered what would have happened to a kid whose mother could not afford a decent lawyer. It was absurd that a teenager could have had his life ruined, and be stuck with a criminal record, simply because he wanted to be like Bruce Lee.
I always knew my arrest was a travesty. Now three decades later, the law under which I was arrested has been declared unconstitutional. Citing the Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which applied the Second Amendment to the states, U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen, who was nominated by President Obama, ruled that “the possession and use of nunchaku is protected by the Second Amendment” and that the sections of the New York law banning them are “an unconstitutional restriction on the right to bear arms ... and are, therefore, void.”
The suit was filed by a lawyer named James Maloney, who, like me, had been arrested for possessing nunchucks. He has been fighting this fight since his arrest in 2000. Eighteen years later, he and I have been vindicated. Americans have a constitutional right to keep and bear nunchucks. Not just the foam kind, but the real thing.
I have the feeling that, somewhere up there, Bruce Lee is smiling.
Thiessen is a Washington Post columnist. Follow him on Twitter @marcthiessen.