It was hard to sleep yesterday because of the pop-pop-popping of home fireworks and home firecrackers for hours into the night. While one might pass this off as ordinary Fourth of July noise, what made it out of the ordinary was the fact that all of these devices are illegal in my town. Every one of those pops represented a crime.
I live in what is, for the most part, a very law abiding neighborhood. We’re all homeowners with a vested interest in a safe, quality community, and most of us have children, and believe in being responsible role models. All of which makes it even more interesting that, when it comes to fireworks on our Nation’s birthday, a whole lot of my neighbors turned into renegades. That fact got me thinking about unpopular laws and how we handle them.
As for the fireworks proscription, I can think immediately of two reasons why they’re illegal here: they’re a fire hazard and they’re a safety hazard. With respect to the latter, they’re especially a problem because, while it’s the grown-ups who purchase them, it’s the kids who blow off their little fingers. From my point of view, the proscription represents a sensible law with regard to public safety, both at the community level (fire hazard) and the individual level (risk of injuries, especially to children). But fireworks are fun, and it’s obvious that a lot of people think it’s a bad law that, by magnifying real, but infrequent risks, denies many people a whole lot of enjoyment. These people, therefore, tell themselves the law is bad, and break it.
Breaking a law is a good way to send government a signal that you don’t agree with the law. Government has the option of pushing back with penalties, ignoring the scofflaws, or changing the law. The choice government makes often depends on the balance between the type of law broken and the type of person breaking the law. The more serious the crime, the less the government will care if you’re white, blue or collar. (Unless, of course, you’re Scooter Libby, in which case even a less serious crime means you’re dead in the water.) The more reputable the person, the less the government will care about that person’s breach of many smaller crimes. (Unless, of course, you’re Scooter Libby, in which case even your standing as a more reputable person means you’re dead in the water.) I suspect that, in my community, because the scofflaws are good home owners, tax payers and otherwise law abiding citizens, the local government turns a blind eye to the illegal fireworks.
All of the above is practical, of course. It’s the way the world works, whether you like it or not. My question for you, though, is whether it’s right for citizens to act unilaterally and break bad laws. I happen to be an exceptionally law abiding soul, and I follow the laws whether I like them or not, or whether I think they’re silly or not. However, if I ever found a law so personally inconveniencing or offensive that I’d have trouble following it, my response wouldn’t be to break it (at least not in the first instance, although it could eventually become necessary), but to complain about it and to try to change it. Calls to my local legislators, letters to my local papers, petitions in my computer, etc., would all be my approach to dealing with a law I think is bad.
What would you do? Do you think we, as citizens, have an obligation to follow manifestly silly laws? And if you think we don’t, who do you think should be the one determining what’s silly? What if I think — as so many San Francisco drivers clearly do — that red lights are silly if I have that extra second to shoot through the intersection? And even if we agree that red light laws are too important ever to be deemed silly, what about firecracker laws? As I noted above, while they address small, but real safety concerns, they mostly deprive thousands of people of a bit of fun every year. Who is being silly — the town that wants to enforce the laws or the people that want to break them?
Filed under: Crime and punishment