Editorial | Good Step Forward on Lasers, Though Enforcement Questions Remain

January 10, 2013 

Horry County’s move Tuesday to limit laser sales in the county is a strong step toward ending the inane and dangerous fad we saw last year of shining the lights at incoming aircraft. Even better is the concurrent action by Myrtle Beach and Surfside Beach to work toward adopting identical ordinances so that buyers need not simply drive into the city to make their purchase. But the proof will be in the pudding. Will the new rules actually make a dent in the profusion of laser strikes – more than 70 – that we saw last summer?

We hope so, but if not, perhaps some tweaking will be in order. The ordinance that was passed this week is a good start and it shows that county leaders aren’t playing around when it comes to this issue. But it’s unfortunately vague when it comes to enforcement, a vital component of ensuring that lasers be kept out of the hands of those who would misuse them.

For example, the ordinance requires merchants to get the signature of any would-be laser buyer on a form that spells out the possible penalties and fines for misusing the laser. Such a warning at the point of sale is a good idea that should give otherwise unaware customers a strong reason to be careful with their new purchase. But the ordinance as passed does not include any requirement that merchants keep a copy of these signed forms or a record of their use, though many likely will do so anyway. Nevertheless, without such a requirement it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for law enforcement officials to determine whether stores have been following the new rule. In other words, there’s nothing to keep stores from saying they had their customers sign this warning but never actually bothering to do it.

In addition, the ordinance warns ominously that merchants who flout these new rules “are subject to the suspension and ultimate revocation of their business licenses,” a penalty that should make store owners sit up and take notice. But the county did not spell out what the process is for that suspension or revocation. Will businesses see their licenses suspended the first time a clerk forgets about the new rule and sells a 17-year-old a laser? What if it’s the 10th time? Will the licenses be suspended first and then revoked later if there are more offenses? And who makes that decision? It’s simply not spelled out, leaving a gray area for both county enforcers and stores to wonder about.

And that’s not even taking into account the more basic enforcement problems. Will law enforcement even be able to find those reckless wrongdoers who are shining lasers at aircraft? County Councilman Marion Foxworth, speaking Thursday, used the example of a Coast Guard helicopter hit by a laser coming from an oceanfront hotel in the dark. Even with stricter rules against such action, police still must determine 1) which hotel, 2) which floor, 3) which room and 4) what person in that room is responsible. That’s a tall order. Nevertheless, when police can identify perpetrators, it’s important they have the tools they need to act decisively and swiftly, a need that these new rule addresses.

Foxworth had few answers about enforcement details, but was hopeful that this immature recklessness with lasers is just a passing fad in any case. He pointed out that when he was in high school, Horry County grocery customers had to be 18 to buy eggs, a rule put in place after a rash of egg-throwing incidents by youthful offenders. We hope he’s right. If shining lasers at aircraft goes the way of Pogs, lava lamps, toga parties, bell bottoms and Silly Bandz, that would be wonderful. Maybe a law cracking down on who can own lasers will be rendered moot by the march of time and fashion. Fine by us. We’ll find out this summer. If the laser strikes continue or worsen, it may be time to tighten the rules a bit and fill in some gaps. In the meantime, it’s a good start.

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