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Kern County Sheriff's Office Chief Instructor Pilot Tim Caughron talks to a reporter about how dangerous it is when people on the ground direct laser pointers and high-powered strobes at aircraft at night.

Laser beams directed by evil people on the ground and into the eyes of pilots flying overhead are dangerous acts of terrorism.

It’s time to get serious about the criminal use of laser pointers.

Laser beam attacks are happening in Kern County. They are happening increasingly around the nation and world. The Kern County District Attorney’s Office reports it prosecutes an average of two cases a year.

In 2017, the Kern County Sheriff’s Department arrested six people for discharging a laser at an aircraft. Last year, two were arrested. And just a few weeks ago, 20-year-old John Howten was arrested in the 1100 block of Castaic Avenue after allegedly flashing a light with a strobe function at the sheriff’s helicopter as it was making a landing.

Patrick Murphy with LaserPointer-Safety.com reports there have been 75,000 similar cases worldwide since 2004, with 50,000 occurring in the U.S.

Using simple pointers that are easily and cheaply bought in office supply, sports and department stores, malicious people are aiming laser beams at aircraft. The beams “explode” like a flashbulb in the cockpit, temporarily -- or in some cases permanently -- blinding the pilots.

Incapacitating pilots endangers people in the aircraft, as well as those on the ground in the event of a crash.

Aircraft manufacturers, airlines and the military are working feverishly to develop systems that will help protect pilots, while not restricting their normal vision. These systems include protective goggles and windshield screens. Just last fall, the Department of Defense allocated $200 million to step up research after the U.S. accused China of trying to blind military pilots in Africa and the Pacific using laser beams.

While nations weaponizing these laser beams is a serious threat, most incidents involve pranksters or malicious people just standing in their backyards with cheap “toys” in their hands.

That is exactly what happened in 2014, when a Kern County sheriff’s helicopter was providing overhead support to officers responding on the ground. Twice, the helicopter crew was struck by a powerful green laser. The pilot experienced flash blindness and eye discomfort that lasted several hours.

The source of the laser was pinpointed to a commercial property and motorhome surrounded by a chain link fence on Sillect Avenue. Barry Lee Bowser, 52, admitted he was testing his laser after replacing its batteries.

Bowser was arrested and sentenced to 21 months in federal prison, plus three years of supervised release and a $10,000 “special assessment fee.”

Although state and federal laws carry hefty punishments for these offenses, they do not seem to be stopping them

Likely that is because the use and potential danger is not taken seriously.

Why? Because they are considered “toys.” Check out the sales pitches on such online outlets as Amazon. Depending on their power and reach, their price tags start at $8. Most are called “toys” – gadgets to torment cats and dogs, and to fill the idle time of the mindless.

California law barely touches the danger. And the weak restrictions imposed on sales to minors can be skirted by simply having the minor accompanied by an adult. And who really is checking, anyway? Besides, stupidly and dangerously using laser pointers is not just a kid thing. 

It’s time to get serious about this serious danger. Treat laser points not like harmless toys. Require retailers to restrict access.

Go into any store in California and try to buy a can of spray paint. State law requires cans to be placed in cages that must be opened by a store clerk. The requirement was legislated to discourage tagging.

Want to buy a common antihistamine or cold medication? Chances are, you will have to ask a store clerk to retrieve one from behind a counter. Why? Because some ingredients could be used to manufacture methamphetamine.

Placing a similar extra hoop on the sale of laser pointers will take away the “anonymous” nature of the purchase and drive home the serious concerns about their use.