The House is set to pass a bill that would ban those under 18 from buying laser pointers. The measure will advance to the Senate with another vote on Tuesday.
The bill comes after the Coast Guard threatened to stop performing search-and-rescue flights off the state’s northeast coast because too many of its helicopter pilots were being hit by lasers and forced to turn around. Coast Guard Sector Charleston commander Capt. Michael White said one helicopter was forced to return from a missing boaters search near Myrtle Beach in July. Fortunately, the two boaters— 49-year-old Guiseppe Chillico and 50-year-old Keith Crook— were able to swim about four miles and reach land.
White said Myrtle Beach International Airport also has the highest number of lasers-to-aircraft reports of any airport in the country. In response, Horry County voted to ban high-powered green lasers of one milliwatt or higher from store shelves last fall and also barred minors from being able to buy laser devices at all.
Now, Rep. Liston Barfield (R-Conway) said he believes the ban for minors should be done on a statewide level. The House gave early approval to his proposal in an 81-8 vote last week.
“I don’t like to take peoples’ rights,” Barfield told South Carolina Radio Network. “But when you’re taking somebody else’s life into your hands, even though it seems like such a small thing, to me it’s time to try to change the law and fix it.”
The bill would ban stores from selling laser devices to minors. Any store caught doing so would be guilty of a misdemeanor and fined at least $100 for the first offense and up to $400 for repeated sales. Any minors who purchase the lasers would face a $25 fine.
The ban would not apply to lasers that are legally used as gun sights on weapons. A minor could still purchase the device to use for a distress signal, educational and business purposes, or for their jobs.
But Rep. Garry Smith (R-Greenville) voted against the ban, saying it would punish those teens who are buying the lasers for legitimate reasons. “All is going to do is make the parents upset because they’ve got to go buy the laser pointers for their teens to use in their PowerPoint presentations at school, which I think is absurd,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. Smith said he does not think a ban will solve the problem, since some minors will continue to illegally use lasers their parents bought.
Smith also questioned the need for a statewide ban to solve an Horry County problem.
Barfield said he believed it was no longer an individual rights issue, but a public safety one. “If there was no danger, I would never have put a bill in,” he said. “I’m one who believes that you ought not take peoples’ rights unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
However, he said he thought the final bill was very “watered down” from the original version he drafted, which included criminal penalties and fewer exemptions. But Barfield admitted he did not have the votes for a stricter ban.
It is already a federal offense to point lasers at aircraft. A criminal violator faces up to an $11,000 fine and jail time. But it is difficult to enforce since it requires a law enforcement officer to witness the act.