Bad laws are made to be broken — or are they?

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?

13 Responses

  1. You seem to be going into the realm of human group dynamics, Book, where the importance lies in how a group functions in response to various stimuli.

    I think the consequences for individuals breaking the law are different when compared to what occurs when it goes from single individuals to virtually everybody. Group dynamics and sociology then come into play, and when that occurs, then it is about government and group control.

    I see no problem with making an exception to the Fourth Of July. The risks are acceptable in one instance where they may not be acceptable year round, Book.

  2. One can also examine the effects of people disregarding the law. If people disregard, say, stop sign rules, one would expect to see lots of accidents, maybe even some injuries. So people would reasonably come to view ignoring that law and demand tougher enforcement. Officer Friendly would tour the schools saying “Stop For Safety,” etc.

    Now consider the effect of near-universal ignoring of fireworks laws on July 4: widespread fun. If there are injuries, there aren’t a lot of them that I’ve heard of, and they seem to come into the same “drunken idiots fooling around” category as other ways to hurt yourself at a holiday barbecue party.

    I think the American people have determined by experiment that fireworks laws are stupid, and quite sensibly disregard them. One can see the same effect in things like bedroom activity laws, speeding no more than about 10 mph above the limit, etc.

  3. We have, in this country, a funny history with regard to our attitudes to laws. This goes right back to the foundation. Keep in mind how we got started as a nation: with a roomful of people in Philadelphia in 1776 that the law-makers of the day regarded as ripe for hanging on grounds of treason and general lawlessness. (Your own fundamentally law-abiding nature would , presumably, have made you a non-participant in launching this new country.) Calls to the legislators, letters to the papers, and petitions to the king had all been tried, and our forefathers had no hesitation in saying: “the hell with this,” and arming themselves. They didn’t obey laws that got in their way.

    As we expanded westward, the law was pretty much what the strongest and most organized people out in the wilderness said it was. The wilderness was tough, and often required action that was both swift and decisive; and there wasn’t always time (or inclination) for niceties.

    So two hundred and thirty years later we find ourselves somewhat ambivalent. We have a long history of disregarding those laws we consider to be dumb, useless; or even worse, positively counter-productive. It could fairly be said that it’s the basis of the country.

    I thinhk what you might refer to as “community standards” tend to trump a lot of the lesser, or “nuisance” laws. Fireworks are a good example. Everybody knows what the 4th of July is, everybody knows why – and how – we celebrate it – and the cops have better things to do.

    Where I live, there’s one road. It goes through a national park for much of its length. Therefore, the posted speed limit is a fairly absurd 55, to keep the old ducks in RVs safe. There are three towns along the road: my own; then it’s 50 miles to the next one; then it’s 70 miles to the one after that. Getting kids to school is, plainly, difficult. There are kids on isolated farms and ranches who get picked up by the bus at five in the morning to be in class at 8:30.

    Consequently it is routine, normal, and expected that the buses move as fast as they can go – generally about 75. A lot of people hereabouts are employed in the logging industry. The log trucks routinely maintain whatever the truck will do, generally 80+ – for them, time is money: no dawdling. Last week I was on the way to the farther-away town, in a two-car convoy with some friends. Friend and wife were in a Porsche, self and wife were in an RX-8. We went by a parked cop at something in excess of 110. Wife watched cop carefully and reported he didn’t even bother to look up as we went by.

    So everybody, up to and including the enforcers thereof, disregards the law. Because it’s pointless: the road is flat, mostly straight, and pretty empty. Nobody has that much time to spend on it. There are folks who live out on the west end for whom going to the supermarket (as opposed to the little local general store) is a five hour round trip. They plan trips to town carefully (you don’t pop out for things), and they most assuredly do not go 55.

    So the law is honored mostly in the breach. Community standards make it so.

    I think the “community standard” standard is the one to apply. Government, after all (we always talk about “government” as though it’s from Mars) is allegedly us. They don’t (at least constitutionally) get to impose much. If everyone’s ignoring a law, it’s probably a dumb law. If even the cops don’t care about it, it’s definitely, unquestionably, a dumb law.

  4. I think it is absolutely correct to break a law if you find that the law is wrong. What is absolutely crucial about this is that you should EXPECT to pay the known punishment for being caught. In many cases of civil disobedience, we ensure that we are caught, and we ensure that we pay the price, to highlight the unfairness of such a law.

    What truly disgusts me about the illegal immigration mess is the vast number of illegal immigrants AND the vast number of those who deliberately hire them who, when caught, claim they’re doing nothing wrong.

    In the case of firecrackers being banned within the city limits, many of us do break that law on July 4th. Last year here in Dallas I would not have broken it, as we were dry as a tinderbox and homes in the area would have been in danger. Many of us agreed last year that it would have been grossly stupid. This year we are swimming in water and everything is drenched, so I would have had no problem with breaking that particular law – nor, if caught, with paying the penalty.

  5. I had the same experience in my neighborhood. Fireworks are freely available in the neighboring towns and even though my town bans them outright, they explode all night with no effort to enforce the ban.

    As for breaking laws generally, I’ve noticed that lots of people routinely break the speed limit laws, but very few drive in the commuter, carpool lane illegally and even fewer park illegally in handicapped spaces. I’m an example, since I routinely speed and never violate the other two. I think the difference is that the public realizes that a single speed limit for all times, weathers and driving conditions is silly, a carpool restriction is more reasonable (although I personally believe it’s counterproductive) and the handicapped spaces are a true blessing to those who need them.

    I do agree that if you are going to break the law you should accept the penalty.

  6. […] [Discuss this post with Bookworm over at Bookworm Room…] Share Article Fourth of July, firecracker laws    Sphere: Related Content | Trackback URL […]

  7. Some years ago my community was debating whether to ban fireworks. The city council, at the time, was three females and two males.

    I looked up the historical data on fireworks accidents and found remarkably little risk from fireworks. The previous year in Washington State, there had only been one significant fireworks related accident, and it was ruled an arson attempt. I quizzed the state fire marshall office (consisting of three females) whether I was missing something, and they admitted I wasn’t. But, they were still hell bent on outlawing something which did not pose a demonstrated danger.

    At the city council meeting, as I tried to insert some intellectual content regarding the lack of any justification for concluding there was a public safety issue, one of the female council members said, “I don’t believe males like fireworks any more than females do.”

    I left the meeting convinced the issue was that females don’t have any interest in fireworks, females don’t understand that males do have an interest in fireworks, and just in case they are wrong females don’t want to give males any freedom to express an interest in fireworks.

    So, do a quick survey of your neighborhood to find out who purchased the neighborhood fireworks, and who set them off. I’ll bet they were all males.

    Incidently, my town council voted three to two to ban fireworks (three females for the ban, two males against the ban).

    The evidence I’ve gathered causes me to conclude that fireworks bans are an example of: (1) the misuse of political power by females; and (2) female intolerance of the interests of those who are not female.

  8. Well they don’t call socialism craddle to grave welfare because it is a man hunting people down to kill and slaughter them. There’s a certain kind of maternal tone to socialism and laws sourced from the desire to keep people safe. The best way to keep people safe is to lock them in a small box with armed guards around them.

  9. I love the article. Good question. One of the things that I think defines America is the culture of rebellion. This is a country full of people who yell “DON’T TREAD ON ME.” And they usually mean it. When it comes to municipalities shooting off laws that infringe on our right to celebrate Independence day because little Johnny or Suzy might blow off a finger because Mommy and Daddy aren’t doing their job, well, people get a little annoyed and decide we’re grown up enough to make those decisions for ourselves. There are, however, laws that I believe to be so immoral that if in the situation I would have to break them in order to look myself in the mirror. For instance, if I was a doctor at Cook County Hospital and I was ordered to perform an abortion, I wouldn’t. If I were a pharmacist and was ordered to dispense the abortion pill I wouldn’t. I would rather go to jail then allow the abortion nuts to use me as a weapon for their cause. If the government should ever demand my guns back, I wouldn’t turn them in because I know what’s coming after they take all the guns away. Despotism and slavery. I refuse to live under those conditions and so I would break the law. But the idea that we are so rebellious, that we do have lines we will not cross is a beautiful beautiful thing. It keeps those snotty politicians in check. It knocks them down a little from that high horse they get on every day. They realize every 4th of July, that when the people decide they want to blow off fireworks, there’s not a damned thing they can do about it except sit back and wait for us to get it out of our systems. It’s a good reminder should they ever be dumb enough to try enslaving the American people.

  10. What you are in fact debating is the idea of jury nullification. The idea that a jury, which is our very last line of defense against a tyrannical government, may disregard a law they do not agree with and find the accused not guilty for that reason alone. The idea of jury nullification is well settled in English common law and is also well settled in the United States as enumerated by the Supreme Court and various appellate courts. However, as the national government expanded and usurped powers belonging to the states, the courts enunciated a new rule that jurors do not have to be informed of their right of nullification. Hopefully everyone here will take the opportunity to research jury nullification and learn of their power as jurors.

  11. David Hume, 18th century philosopher, noted that “you cannot govern against the grain of humanity”. Thomas Jefferson and Little Fox above are on to something–liberty loving people will push back against government, the trajectory of which is always toward more laws and less freedom. Without push back from the citizenry, the old similitude of the frog in the boiling water would obtain.

    Governors need to be instructed in the law every bit as much as the governed. What is the limit of what the people will put up with? Nanny state legislation breeds not only contempt for reasonable laws, but also enervates a freedom loving people and makes them slavish and docile in their chains.

  12. I’d be interested to hear any comments by BW or DQ on Jury Nullification. I’ve never heard of it. The Wikipedia article is interesting.

  13. Great post and comments. I sure learn a lot from your blog.

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