'Star Wars' at the beach Fad: Red-dot-throwing laser pens are hot this summer, but they've been targeted as a hazard by officials in Ocean City.

August 04, 1998|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY -- The chunky young man portraying Jesus was just beginning to rise from the dead when the faithful gathered for the play on the beach began to applaud him. Before he could fully return to life, though, a wavering red dot appeared on his groin area, flitted like a lightning bug and then landed on his forehead.

Suddenly, instead of reverence in the midst of "Jesus on the Beach Week," there was a titter and a few giggles. A kid armed with a laser pointer had struck again.

Nobody, it seems, not even a man portraying Jesus, is being spared the wrath of the newest fad on the beach, the bullet-sized, red-dot-throwing laser pens that may have become as common on the Eastern Shore as sunburn.

"We're getting lazed all over the place," says Ocean City Police Chief David Massey. "Everybody's a target. They're completely out of control."

Last month, Ocean City became the first municipality in the state -- and one of only two in the country -- to place restrictions on the use of the lasers. Point one at somebody and you could spend 30 days in jail or pay a $500 fine.

Several citations have been written in Ocean City using the new ordinance; Dewey Beach and Rehoboth Beach in Delaware are cracking down on the zappers as well using anti-menacing laws.

A laser creates a red, pea-sized dot of light on its target, often leaving the startled victim to flail at it as if trying to ward off a wasp. Newer versions beam silhouettes of women, dollar signs and an extended middle finger.

People throughout the country have been seeing the little red dots at sporting events, at movie theaters and in school rooms. But with the price dropping from about $80 to as low as $10 this summer, and with a large concentration of young people at the shore with nothing but sand and time on their hands, the red dots are popping up all over the beaches.

More than a mere annoyance, the lasers can be dangerous, beach officials say. People are shining them in the eyes of bus drivers, police horses and even police officers. That is particularly troublesome, they say, because the red dots resemble those used on rifle sights.

"One of the biggest problems we're having is people shining them on women's breasts and buttocks, and then the boyfriends get mad, and before you know it we have a fistfight going," Massey said.

With a range of 1,500 feet -- the equivalent of five football fields -- the perpetrators are difficult to identify. Even the person being zapped with the laser has difficulty determining where the beam is originating. When night fell in Ocean City last week, dozens of red dots began appearing on foreheads, backsides and elsewhere, with narrow beams crossing, making the boardwalk look like a beach scene from "Star Wars."

The lasers were once used primarily by doctors and college professors giving lectures. Now, with the price as low as a few carnival rides, merchants along Ocean City's boardwalk say they have sold thousands this summer.

Police blame the fad on more than the low price. They blame Jerry Seinfeld. In an episode of his television show last season, the character George Costanza was tormented by someone who kept a laser focused on his forehead and shirt. The more annoyed George became, the harder the other characters laughed.

"I think it's people trying to have fun," said Dewey Beach Mayor lTC Bob Frederick. "The problem is pranks are pranks, but this is particularly troubling because of the safety factor. And, let's face it, if you shine something like that on a woman's breast, you have a serious case of invasion of privacy."

Some people also fear that in the hands of children the devices could be dangerous to the eyes, but medical experts say that is unlikely unless exposure to the beam is lengthy and direct.

Dr. Oliver Schein of the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins Hospital said a fleeting exposure to the light is harmless.

"Unless you have a prolonged, direct exposure right in your pupil, there's basically no threat," he said. "Where you'd run into trouble is if two kids hold down their sister or someone and shine it right in her eye. That could cause a burn of the retina."

Ten-year-old Christopher Shertzer and his 7-year-old brother, Stephen, bought their lasers at Sportsmen's World on the boardwalk in Ocean City.

Christopher says that he likes using the beam to get a reaction from people but that he wouldn't aim it at anybody. "Maybe I'll shine it right in front of them," he says. "You should see them jump."

"They're cool," Stephen adds, explaining as well as anyone the appeal of the lasers.

Sarah Sheets, 15, who was visiting Ocean City from Baltimore with her family last week, swears that she'd never point the laser at anybody.

"You're not allowed," she says after buying a laser for $14.99 at the Shade Shack on the boardwalk. "They're just for fun. Everybody's got one at school, and I just saw it here and said, 'OK, now I'm going to buy mine.' "

New York's Westchester County is the only other jurisdiction in the country that has passed an ordinance specifically aimed at the lasers, according to Ocean City officials. There, it's illegal for anyone under 18 to purchase them. But in some places, such as Dewey Beach, authorities are using ordinances already on the books to combat them.

The Ocean City police chief says there have been fewer instances of his officers being targeted since the ordinance went into effect last week.

But Jim Hudson, owner of the Shade Shack, says he's not sure the ordinance is going to work. Last week, he says, his store sold more than 100 lasers in one day.

The previous week, at the request of police, he put up a sign informing customers that it would be illegal to point the lasers at anyone if the intention is to torment them. Sales dropped.

"I took the sign down," he laughs. "Now I'm selling them every two minutes."

Pub Date: 8/04/98

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