Could laser pointers soon be banned as dangerous weapons?

by Rob Holmes
Posted 2/20/14, 03:00 pm

The FBI began a campaign in 12 U.S. cities last week to deter the growing problem of people shining lasers at aircraft, which can temporarily blind pilots.

Besides educating the public about the lasers’ extreme danger to aircraft—and those in them—the initiative provides a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of someone aiming a laser at planes with criminal intent. ‘Lasing’ was labeled a felony in 2012, yet the number of reported incidents has increased, to nearly 4,000 nationwide last year. That’s over 1,000 more than in 2010, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“We applaud the FBI for recognizing how serious this situation is,” said Capt. Sean Cassidy, first vice president of the Airline Pilots Association.

Lasers have yet to result in a crash, but the threat is real. Newer lasers with green lights affect the human eye even more than others. Hand-held pointers may produce a flash lasting only 1/50 of a second, but it’s impossible to avoid the effect in the cockpit. Some pilots report having to abandon controls to a co-pilot after getting temporary but intense flashblindness, making a critical stage of flight even more chancy due to the additional stress in the cockpit. The FAA has tallied 35 incidences of laser-affected pilots needing medical attention.

When the FAA began collecting data from pilot reports in 2006, laser pointers were less powerful and incidents less common. Only seven years later, the number of strikes has increased more than tenfold, from 384 to 3,960.  And technological advances mean lasers strikes are even more powerful and reach higher altitudes. The FAA attributes the huge increase to better reporting by pilots. However, the FBI says there may be thousands that go unreported.

The campaign is focused on major air hubs like Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, New York, and Miami. But even smaller cities like Fresno, Calif., deal with the problem. Last month, a 23-year-old California man was sentenced to 21 months in prison for pointing his laser at a Fresno County Sheriff’s Office helicopter. According to court records and the FBI, the man deliberately tracked and struck the aircraft.

Over the past two years, the FAA has investigated 152 laser incidents, resulting in 96 “enforcement actions.” In 2012, Glenn Stephen Hansen shined his laser at 23 airliners during their take-off roll out at Orlando International airport. His sentence was six months in prison, a $10,000 fine, and a year of supervised release., a site helping to prevent laser crime, reports Ocean City, Md., Ocean City, N.J., and Myrtle Beach, S.C., are among cities that have restricted or completely banned sales and possession of laser pointers. 

New Zealand restricted laser pointer sales above 1 milliwatt in 2013, following a similar ban in 2008 in the Australian state of New South Wales. The legislation classified them as “dangerous weapons,” the same category as guns and crossbows.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Rob Holmes

Rob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course. Follow Rob on Twitter @SouthernFlyer.

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