In 1973, the film “Enter the Dragon” released in theaters, becoming one of the most influential martial arts movies of all time, eventually making its way into the Library of Congress in 2004. The poster for the movie sees martial arts star Bruce Lee standing front and center, with a pair of nunchucks in his hands.
Three years later in 1976, the city of Madison passed an ordinance banning the possession of nunchucks.
Now, a proposal going before the Common Council tomorrow night is looking to repeal that ban, and once again allow nunchucks in Madison. That comes as city alders are looking to clean up outdated portions of the city’s municipal code.
The rule, which was passed in December of 1976 and is riddled with misspellings, bans the sale, purchase, or possession of “numchucks”, two rods connected by a rope or chain, “churkins”, a type of round throwing knife, and “sucbai”, a wood or metal rod. The penalty for owning one of these weapons is a $500 fine. And, the weapon must be turned over to police to be destroyed.
Marci Kurtz with the city attorney’s office says that, if the rule is repealed, nunchucks will be treated just like any other weapon.
“Could you walk down the street holding a nunchuck? Definitely, you could do that,” Kurtz says. “Could you take it into a school? Probably not. Could you use it to hit someone? No. To me, these are just one kind of weapon, it’s just depending on what the use is. We are not saying that actual possession is illegal now, but if you use it to batter someone, that’s going to be a battery. If you use it to kill someone, that’s going to be a homicide. It is more of what the weapons are used for, that’s what the penalties would be, instead of just possessing them.”
There have been efforts in recent months to clean up the city’s municipal code, and to remove outdated or unnecessary ordinances. These efforts have been largely led by now former District 15 Alder Grant Foster, who has, among other things, repealed laws outlawing trick riding on bikes, curfew hours, and public indecency.
Kurtz says that, while the city attorney’s office tries to go through and clean up the city’s municipal code on a regular basis, sometimes they overlook something. In those cases, an alder can bring the issue up to their attention, and determine whether or not the rule should stay on the books.
That’s the case with Madison’s nunchuck ban. The issue was brought forward by now former District 3 Alder Erik Paulson, who told the city’s Public Safety Review Committee that the issue had been brought to him by a constituent.
In this case, only one citation for nunchuck possession was issued by the Madison Police Department in the past five years, and that case was later dismissed. Kurtz says that this is one of the things she looks for when cleaning up municipal code.
“Every year, we do a clean up of our city ordinances, and if anything comes to our attention, then we either remove it if it’s not being used, or make any changes that are requested by the alder,” Kurtz says. “We just always want to make sure that what ordinances are on the books are accurate, up-to-date, and being appropriately used.”
Madison is not the only town in Wisconsin to have a nunchuck ban on the books. About three dozen Wisconsin municipalities, from Menasha to Little Chute to Cross Plains, passed the same ordinance in the seventies. In fact, the ordinances are identical, right down to spelling errors.
The exact reason why Madison, and so many other municipalities in Wisconsin, banned nunchucks is unknown. Neither Paulson, Kurtz, nor the city’s Public Safety Review Committee knew why it was enacted in the first place.
John Rothschild, a former assistant city attorney who helped draft the ordinance, tells WORT that, while he remembers drafting the ordinance, he can’t remember why it was brought forward. The ban was originally brought forward by the city attorney’s office, and the Madison Police Department.
The New York Times reported in 2019 that many states across the country banned nunchucks in the 1970s. Terry Park, a lecturer of Asian-American studies at the University of Maryland, told the Times that the bans were fueled by quote “latent anti-Asian anxieties” end quote surrounding kung fu movies.
Both New York state and Arizona repealed bans on nunchucks in 2018 and 2019, after a federal judge ruled that the New York ban was unconstitutional, and violated the Second Amendment.
According to the New York Times, officials in Nassau County New York had prosecuted only three nunchuck possession cases between December of 2014 and January of 2017.
The proposal to legalize nunchucks was approved by the Public Safety Review Committee earlier this month, and goes before the full council for a final vote tomorrow night.
Photo courtesy: Arivumathi / WikiCommons under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.