Why Paul Was Right to Oppose Laser-Pointer Law

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Kentucky Senator Rand Paul listens during the first meeting of the U.S. Senate Tea Party Caucus on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 27, 2011

How extreme is freshman Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, the libertarian darling of the Tea Party? On Thursday, Feb. 3, he was the only Senator to oppose a proposed amendment making it a federal crime to aim a laser pointer at an airplane, taking a lonely stand with the idiots who try to distract pilots 35,000 ft. (10,000 m) up in the sky. After the 96-1 vote, Paul said the problem could be "adequately handled and prosecuted at the state level."

Of course he'll take the usual Washington abuse for ignoring senatorial groupthink, but Paul was actually right to vote no. As the old saying goes: You don't have to make a federal case of it. And I'll out-extreme the extremist: States shouldn't be legislating solutions to the laser-pointer menace either.

You shouldn't have to drink tea to recognize that government can't fix every problem. And those of us who actually believe government can make a difference should recognize that it gets a bad name by sticking its nose into issues where it can't.

I'm not trying to deny the seriousness of this particular problem or the idiocy of these particular idiots. Pilots say they can be temporarily blinded when lasers are beamed into their cockpits, and the FAA says it's happened 2,836 times in the past two years. This sounds like a genuine safety hazard. And it sounds as if the laser-pointer industry needs to do a better job in educating consumers about the dangers of its products. So allow me to start this education process:

Hey, idiots! Stop pointing lasers at planes!

It takes only about five seconds of thought to see that Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse's amendment to impose federal penalties — up to a five-year prison sentence — for attempted plane zapping would be completely useless. How exactly would it be enforced? Would pilots who get lasered in the air contact a federal anti-laser-pointer task force on the ground? Would Tommy Lee Jones be recruited to lead the manhunts? And if a local cop somehow caught a 12-year-old goof-off trying to Luke Skywalker a 747 with a laser pointer he stole from his corporate mom, would the kid go to the federal pen? Sure, it's conceivable that someone with truly menacing intentions would point a laser into a cockpit. But does Congress think there's nothing in the existing federal code that would allow him to be prosecuted for trying to blind a pilot in midflight?

The 96 Senators who voted for this silliness would say they're just trying to send a message to the public about a dangerous activity. I support this message, as politicians like to say. But that's not really the message they're trying to send. It's more like the line on George H.W. Bush's teleprompter — message: I care. The Senators are lawmakers, so they feel as if they need to make laws to show concern; they're covering their backsides in case a laser-pointing idiot ever does bring down a plane.

And they're not just sending a message. They're enacting a statute, which will have to be entered into the federal code along with more than 4,000 existing federal crimes. The Justice Department and the FAA will have to figure out what to do about it; lawyers and law enforcers around the country will have to learn about it; judges will eventually have to interpret it. It won't be a huge deal or a huge expense; it's just kind of dopey. Just like it's kind of dopey that we have to give "verbal assent" to the flight attendant about her safety instructions when we sit in the exit row, or that we have to tell the guy at curbside check-in that we packed our bags ourselves.

Americans have always argued about how big and intrusive our government should be. It's a worthy argument. In general, we like our Social Security and our interstates; we don't like our taxes or the subsidies that go to someone else. But our main interaction with government is through laws, and when we see that ridiculous tag that we're not allowed to remove from our mattress, some of us assume the folks making the laws are the real idiots. That's the sentiment that fueled the Tea Party — and sent an antigovernment ophthalmologist named Rand Paul to the U.S. Senate.