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Are Laser Pointers Illegal?

By Aditi Mukherji, JD | Last updated on

You may have an addiction a habit of watching YouTube videos of kittens catching laser pointers. But what you may not realize is that those cat owners may be breaking the law in the most adorable way possible.

Nerds and cat ladies alike should have stopped with their laser pointer keychains and questioned: "Are laser pointers illegal?"

According to a new study, the answer in most cases is yes.

Is Your Pointer Too Powerful?

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) study shows a majority of the dinky laser pointers on the market exceed the power level limits set by the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), reports Slate.

Power limits put in place by the CFR cap laser pointers at 5 milliwatts. Anything more powerful than that is technically not a "laser pointer."

That's why it's disturbing that the study's co-authors found some of the "regular" laser pointers tested much higher than what was advertised on the labels, with one even clocking in at an insane 66.5 milliwatts.

When, Where Laser Pointers Are OK

It's generally OK for people -- including kids -- to use laser pointers for valid instructional, school-related or employment purposes during normal hours of operation. But if a child is using the laser pointer, it will typically require supervision.

Adults, of course, may use laser pointers that don't exceed 5 milliwatts in their output. That doesn't say much, however, since the NIST study showed that only 26 percent of the laser pointers tested met industry standards.

Adults should especially be careful about using laser pointers with green lights. A whopping 90 percent of green laser pointers in the study were not in compliance with the CFR regulations, compared to 44 percent of red laser pointers, according to the study.

When, Where Laser Pointers Are Not OK

In addition to concerns over powerful laser pointers, laws in many states prohibit young folks from bringing laser pointers onto school grounds or other places.

Some jurisdictions take it further and flat-out prohibit young people from possessing laser pointers.

In New York, for example, it's a misdemeanor for someone to give, sell or even offer to sell a laser pointer to anyone who is 18 years old or younger.

It's especially not OK to aim laser pointers at anyone in uniform. Shining a laser pointer at cops, firefighters, ambulance workers or other uniformed workers is not only uniquely lame, but also incredibly illegal.

Leave planes alone, too.

When President Obama signed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, he made it a federal crime to shine a laser beam at or in the flight path of aircraft. Doing so is punishable by up to $250,000 in fines and five years in prison, reports Slate.

Basically, if it feels like the perfect prank, it's probably not OK.

Remember, your cat video won't be so cute when you accidentally incinerate Fluffy's retina.

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