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How to reduce incidents: Tax handheld lasers and pointers?

The following is analysis and opinion from LaserPointerSafety.com. It reflects only our views, and not those of any sponsor, supporter or other organization.

The Laser Safety Tax idea is just that -- an idea for consideration. It is separate from the question of whether or not the U.S. has reached a point where consumer laser pointers and handhelds need to be restricted. This discussion starts from the point “If it comes to a situation where legislators feel that lasers must be restricted in the U.S., what is the best method?”

Why were there so few reports of consumer laser illuminations of aircraft, until the early 2000’s? One important reason is the high cost of laser pointers and handheld lasers a decade ago. They were not impulse purchases; only true laser enthusiasts would pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for a high-powered laser.

If lasers must be restricted in the United States, we suggest imposing a Laser Safety Tax on handheld lasers with visible light output. This is similar to luxury and gas-guzzler taxes. If a person really wants a handheld laser, it would not be illegal to buy one -- but the cost rises so much that only true laser enthusiasts would pay the higher price.

An important point is that the IRS would enforce the Laser Safety Tax. This helps take some laser enforcement burden off of FDA, which has a very small budget for inspections and interdictions. Another benefit is that a Laser Safety Tax “pays for itself” unlike a ban or regulations.

Suggested Laser Safety Tax rate: $5 per milliwatt

We believe a reasonable taxation rate to discourage purchasing of pointers and handheld lasers is $5.00 per milliwatt. This would put costs roughly at the year 2000 level. Given this rate, here are some pricing examples. Retail prices have been approximated from a low-cost Internet website.

Class 2 - considered very safe
  • 0.95 mW: $5 tax + $3 retail price = $8 total cost

Class 3R/IIIa -- considered safe for 1/4 second “blink” exposure
  • 4.95 mW: $25 tax + $5 retail price = $30 total cost
Note that the lasers listed above (Class 2 and 3R) are allowed to be marketed as laser pointers in the U.S. So under this proposal, the price of the most powerful “legal” laser pointer would increase by $25. We believe this is a reasonable and justifiable increase.

Class 3B -- eye hazard
  • 10 mW: $50 tax + $10 retail price = $60 total cost
  • 25 mW: $125 tax + $15 retail price = $135 total cost
  • 50 mW: $250 tax + $20 retail price = $270 total cost
  • 100 mW: $500 tax + $30 retail price = $530 total cost
  • 250 mW: $1250 tax + $125 retail price = $1375 total cost
  • 495 mW: $2475 tax + $250 retail price = $2725 total cost

Class 4 -- eye, skin and flammable materials hazard
  • 800 mW (typical Wicked Lasers Spyder III Arctic) = $4000 tax + $300 retail price = $4300 total cost
  • 2000 mW (highest handheld laser currently available) = $10,000 tax + $300 retail price = $10,300 total cost

Adjustments and refinements

There could of course be adjustments and refinements. For example:
  • The $5/mW rate is just a suggestion. This could be raised or lowered.
  • The Laser Safety Tax rate could be indexed to inflation, to avoid a situation where lasers become more affordable as the decades go on.
  • There could be a cap on the Laser Safety Tax; for example, the maximum tax could be $2500 (the rate for 500 mW, the lowest-power Class 4 laser).

What to do about existing laser pointers? One idea is to require identification, via a label, stamp or other mark, on all handheld lasers sold after the Laser Safety Tax takes effect. If a person gets in trouble due to laser misuse, and if the laser does not have this ID, then the person either pays the tax or the laser is confiscated and destroyed. Note that persons using laser pointers responsibly would not have reason for their lasers to be examined. So this becomes a de facto way to control laser possession.

A similar idea might be to utilize excise stamps. These are stamps, purchased by cigarette and alcohol manufacturers, and affixed to the product or its packaging to show proof of paying revenue to the government. Under this method, manufacturers would be responsible for paying the tax, and would pass the cost along to their customers.

Avoid loopholes by making clear definitions

There would have to be clear definitions regarding the definition of “laser pointers” and “handheld lasers” that are subject to the Laser Safety Tax. It is important to keep reasonable costs for non-handheld lasers (such as diodes, modules and components) while avoiding loopholes that could lead to illegal mass assembly of handheld lasers. For example, right now it is possible to buy a laser diode plus a battery power supply, and create your own portable handheld laser:

Just add batteries: a DC power supply (top) plus a 15 mW laser (silver case) equals a small, portable laser sold to laser enthusiasts and experimenters for about $40. But would ordinary consumers want to buy and assemble this?

Obviously, any tax regulation would need to close loopholes as much as possible. But all laws have some loopholes or cannot perfectly stop illegal behavior. For example, some persons might build their own lasers out of non-taxed parts -- but most of the general public would not. In this way, the number of handheld lasers would be greatly reduced.

Taxes vs. bans and licensing

If laser pointers must be regulated, we believe the best way is via a Laser Safety Tax. It is simple to understand, it is collected by well-known methods that have effective enforcement, it provides revenue for government (as opposed to bans or licensing, which require additional enforcement resources), and it significantly discourages casual, impulse purchases. It returns the cost status quo to around the year 2000, when there were very few lasings.

Note that we are not saying that aircraft illuminations would instantly return to pre-2000 levels. Obviously, there are hundreds of thousands of pointers and handhelds already in American households. But these lasers would be there under any tax, ban or restriction. The point is to discourage new purchases in the easiest, most cost-effective way possible.

In 2008, the state of New South Wales instituted a strict ban on laser pointer possession. Yet this has not stopped laser incidents -- as of mid-2012, there is about one incident per month. (A list of NSW incidents is here.) When extrapolated to U.S. rates, this means that even under a strict U.S. ban, there still would be roughly 150 laser incidents per year. While that is a significant reduction from the 3,591 FAA incidents in 2011, it still means that 150 U.S. pilots per year would need to know how to recognize and recover from laser incidents.

Pilots would be very wrong to assume that a ban on laser pointers means they do not have to worry about lasers any more.

An alternative approach: Regulate similar to firearms

A LaserPointerSafety.com correspondent has suggested an alternative. He points to Federal and state/local gun purchasing laws. The text below is from his email, lightly edited:

Federal regulations:
1) Like lasers, guns are not inherently dangerous. States and localities are prohibited from suing manufacturers if some person illegally or harmfully uses the product.
2) Purchases restricted to those 21 and over.
3) Are subject to (in all cases) a background check (feasible to keep previous offenders from purchasing?)
4) Are not taxed to discourage purchasers [e.g., there is no special tax on guns to make them extra-costly]
OK, now how have states regulated them (depending on where you live):
1) Cool-down waiting periods (might work)
2) No more than single item purchase
3) Bans in some areas (won’t get into recent 2nd amendment issues here) as deemed necessary.
From that perspective, regulating pointers in this same fashion with strict prosecution of offenders makes much more sense. The U.S. government has always shows great restraint in any blanket ban or control, preferring to lets states dictate specific policies (which is exactly what makes us different from the other mentioned countries [that currently have laser bans]).
General regulation consistent with what is currently done with weapons would be a more consistent and legally defendable approach to this issue.