Welcome back readers; I hope this lovely Tuesday morning finds you rested and refreshed from your long weekend (if you’re Canadian at least) because I’ve got some serious shit to talk about this morning: namely, the law.
Every morning I scan the internet headlines for interesting stuff to talk about. The stuff that catches my eye is usually one of two types: silly or frightening. Sometimes it’s both – today is one of those times.
According to an article in the Baxter Bulletin, officials in Arkansas are currently revamping certain neglected state laws they feel could use some sprucing up. Now, I’m all for the idea of government workers actually doing their jobs and keeping their legal system up to spec, but after reading the article I have a few issues I’d like to bring up to the good people of the Natural State. There are laws and then there are laws, they’ve presumably spent an awful lot of money putting this new legislature through – and I don’t know if it was worth it.
The first of these involves one of my favourite arbitrary government-mandated rules – age limitation. Apparently, there have been a lot of pretty terrible accidents involving teenagers and recreational water vehicles (think Sea-Doos) over the last few years, most notably one involving a 15 year-old girl called Rachel Rutherford, who died in 2007 after a particularly nasty watercraft accident. The titular “Rachel’s Law” prohibits teens under the age of 16 from operating watercraft, and even those of age aren’t allowed to tool around a lake after dark. In addition, any teen operating one of these fun little vehicles must first pass a Driver’s Ed-style course, and if they’re involved in a watercraft accident, they must undergo a drug and alcohol test to ensure they weren’t under the influence on the water.
On paper this looks great – presumably these stipulations will cut down on tragic accidents involving young people – but there are a few gaping holes in the argument. First of all, as I mentioned, the age limitation thing has yet to be worthwhile for a number of reasons.
For one thing, it’s really hard to enforce – I don’t know about Arkansas, but in Ontario I doubt our Parks and Recreation department has the manpower to run all over our wealth of lakes and rivers, pulling over Sea-Doos and checking ID, and the police have their hands full on the highways.
Second of all, it’s like any other age restriction: who is to say you’re more responsible at 16 than you are at 14? It’s not like there’s much of a difference in cognitive skills between those two ages, and in fact, I’m willing to bet a sixteen year-old is more likely to be drinking beer with his buddies than a fourteen year-old who’s probably camping with mom and dad.
Third, I understand why you’d want to test for booze and drugs in an accident victim, but isn’t it a little too late at that point? Assuming the person in question actually survives the accident, is it really going to change the outcome if you can prove he or she was drinking? Again, I’m not sure of the youth crime laws in Arkansas, but in Canada, thanks to the Young Offender’s Act, there isn’t a hell of a lot more you can do to a kid just because he was drunk. With adults it’d be a different story – but there you go again with the age thing – like I said in my Mrs. Robinson post, what constitutes an adult?
The whole change in law seems kind of fruitless – on one hand I understand the government needs to do something in order to make it look like they’re trying to curb these kinds of tragedies, but this law sort of addresses the symptom and not the problem (the problem being, of course, that kids are stupid and will do stupid stuff regardless of what the law says).
Next on the better-law docket is a series of stricter penalties for those found guilty of abusing animals. Dogs, cats and horses are officially on the “no-torture” list (which begs the question, what about birds? Goldfish? What if I attached electrodes to my hamster’s testicles? Is that okay?) Anybody caught being terrible to their pets or livestock face up to six years in prison, a ten-grand fine, or both, because the crime is now considered a felony. In addition, if you do it around your kids, you can face an additional five years in the slammer.
Okay, I’m officially on board with this one. Abusing animals is, to put it bluntly, fucked up. Anybody who thinks it’s okay to stick Rover with safety pins or swing Tabby around by her tail or whatever ought to be locked up, in my estimation.
The problem I have with this law is the same problem I have with animal-abuse laws across the board. People tend to get really up in arms about animal abuse – just watch Saturday morning TV and count the number of weepy celebrities urging you to give money to your local shelter because “you have a responsibility to help the poor, defenseless animals”. Like I said, I’m down with that, but it surprises me sometimes how big a disparity exists between animal abuse and something like domestic abuse. As far as I know, there’s no such thing as a sentencing enhancement if you smash your wife in the face five or six times in front of your children (versus behind the bedroom door). I’m not saying people don’t take domestic abuse seriously, but considering how easy it seems to be for some people – especially rich or high-profile people – to get out of domestic charges versus animal abuse charges, I think there’s a question of priorities that need to be addressed. People were ready to burn Michael Vick at the stake for the dogfighting thing, but the whole Chris Brown versus Rihanna cage match is treated almost as a light-hearted piece of celebrity gossip. What gives?
There were a couple other laws updated by the Arkansas legal system, including an immediate raise in tobacco tax to help stem the sale of cigarettes to minors (that issue requires its own blog, believe me), but the last one on the roster seems to have garnered the most attention. I’m speaking, of course, about the Spongebob Lighter law.
Apparently a couple of two year-olds managed to get their hands on mom and dad’s novelty Spongebob Squarepants-themed cigarette lighter, proceeded to light themselves on fire, and unsurprisingly die. As a result, Arkansas has banned the sale and distribution of novelty lighters featuring graphics of cartoon characters or toys.
Right. Okay. Let’s deal with this piece-by-piece, shall we?
I’ve written before about how little I understand the prevalence of ironic entertainment. I recognize it’s in vogue for child-themed television shows and movies to feature tongue-in-cheek adult references so parents aren’t bored to tears when they take their screaming brats to the theater or turn on the boob tube for some good old fashioned family viewing time. Sometimes I even enjoy those little in-jokes myself – I genuinely enjoyed the first Shrek film for that reason (though the sequels kind of tired out that gimmick pretty rapidly). However, just because I appreciate the subliminal humor doesn’t mean I’m suddenly inclined to go out and buy Shrek-themed teeshirts, posters, boxer shorts, coffee mugs or cigarette lighters, because at the end of the day, it’s for kids. I don’t care how many pop-culture references you cram into your script to expand your demographic – your primary audience still consists of a bunch of booger-eating sugar-addicted ankle biters. So from this perspective, I agree that people shouldn’t be buying Spongebob lighters: realistically there shouldn’t even be a demand for them, because it’s a children’s television show.
Forcing distributors to trash their stock of novelty lighters is going to cost them a lot of money: money they would have made back (however inexplicably) because people actually want these stupid things. Frankly, it’s not fair to make an individual distributor pay for a tragedy that resulted not from the fact that a popular children’s TV character was featured on a potentially dangerous piece of equipment, but because the parents of those children left a fucking lighter kicking around.
Look, I’m not a parent, and I realize you can’t watch your kids 24 hours a day, but I grew up in a household where both parents were casual smokers (for the record, I never knew they smoked at all until I was much older), and yet they never left lighters or matches around the house. They never left anything dangerous around at all, because they took an active interest in, you know, being parents. I’m not going to go on record saying the parents of these unfortunate toddlers were entirely to blame for their kids’ deaths, because accidents are unavoidable, but I am going to say punishing a company that sells an adult product because they’re catering to the demands of their adult demographic is, once again, an example of treating the symptom and not the problem. The people who called for this law are probably the same ones who made the producers of Sesame Street change the “C is for Cookie” song to “Cookies Are A Sometimes Food” because they didn’t want to promote unhealthy eating. Give me a damn break.
I recognize that laws exist for a reason. In the culture we’ve built, legal structure is as intrinsic to the fabric of our society as paying for food. But it strikes me, sometimes, that the laws we create are designed to shield the public at large from taking responsibility for themselves and their children. Statistically, teenagers driving Sea-Doos will eventually get in an accident of some sort. There shouldn’t need to be a law telling us they’d better learn how to drive the damn thing before they get on the lake – that’s common sense. Same thing with animal abuse: you can punish the perpetrator as much as you want, but where did they come up with the idea that kicking your dog around is okay? Shouldn’t basic respect for living things be common sense too? And the cigarette lighter thing – well, you can argue this one six ways from Sunday, but the bottom line is I don’t care what decal is on your flame: if you’ve got small kids, keep that shit put away.
What do you think? Is it a valuable investment of taxpayer money to protect people from themselves? Are there better ways of addressing the fundamental problems that cause these sorts of crimes and accidents? I’ve got my own opinions, but in the last few posts I’ve finally started getting some great reader feedback, and I’d much rather address the debate with you folks individually than preach from the metaphorical mount from behind my computer screen. So lay it on me.