I was buying Christmas presents for my niece and nephew when I spotted a novelty so amazing I had to get one for myself: a tiny laser pointer, just two inches long, that hung on a key ring and cost a mere $11.95.

Rationally, I know that tiny lasers are everywhere, reading CDs and relaying data along fiber-optic lines, among other tasks. But a self-contained laser smaller than my little finger and cheaper than a CD still seemed like a technological miracle too cool to pass up. What a great era, I thought, when high-tech wonders can become so ordinary, the stuff of toy-store impulse buys.

Little did I know that my delightful new toy was the nation's latest "crisis."

Less than a week after I bought my pointer, the New York City Council passed an ordinance making it a crime to sell one to anyone younger than 18. New Jersey's Senate has passed a statewide ban on such sales; the bill is awaiting action in the state Assembly. Milwaukee probably soon will make it illegal for anyone younger than 18 even to possess a pointer. A number of smaller cities already have passed such measures.

In Philadelphia, City Councilman Richard Mariano has introduced a bill modeled on an anti-graffiti measure that bans spray-paint sales to minors. The proposed ordinance, which faces little opposition, would require shopkeepers to keep pointers locked up or behind the counter, to demand identification from any would-be buyers younger than 25, and to record every buyer's name and address. Three violations could cost a shop its business license.

This rush to make buying or owning laser pointers a crime for anyone younger than 18 and to treat adults who buy them as potential miscreants is ridiculous. And while the fate of the nation does not hinge on laser pointers, the attitudes expressed in the current hysteria are pervasive and disturbing.

It is a familiar pattern, triggered by any new technology that is delightful and cheap: Some people use the new product in annoying ways. In response to this "crisis," politicians rush to ban or control the product, citing worst-case scenarios and concerns about "our children." As a result, young people see their worlds get a little narrower, their imaginations a bit more constrained, their lives entangled in yet more laws. All of us have less privacy and less freedom.


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