With S. 723, Wyden Throws Water on Novelty Lighters. Necessary?

Senator Ron Wyden and the Flaming Chalice of Toilet LightersOn March 26, 2009, Senator Ron Wyden introduced S. 723, a federal ban on novelty lighters (read the full text here). Novelty lighters are just like regular cigarette lighters, containing butane and producing a flame; the only difference is that they come in a shape that’s meant to be amusing. Imagine a bright green frog lighter, or a chrome and enamel toilet bowl lighter, or a John Deere tractor lighter and you’ve got the idea.

Ron Wyden has introduced S. 723 with the cosponsorship support of Susan Collins, Thomas Carper and Chris Dodd because children have found them amusing, with sad results. Senator Wyden explains in the Congressional Record about happenings in his own state:

In Oregon, two boys were playing with a novelty lighter disguised as a toy dolphin and accidently started a serious fire, causing the death of one boy and the permanent brain damage of the other. Also in Oregon, a mother suffered third degree burns on her foot when her child was playing with a novelty
lighter shaped like a small toy Christmas tree and set a bed on fire.

Susan Collins follows suit with a description of a case from the state she represents:

Maine’s pioneering law stems from a tragic 2007 incident in a Livermore, Maine, grocery store. While his mother was buying sandwiches, 6-year-old Shane St. Pierre picked up what appeared to be a toy flashlight in the form of a baseball bat. When he flicked the switch, a flame shot out and burned his face. Shane’s dad, Norm St. Pierre, a fire chief in nearby West Paris, began advocating for the novelty-lighter ban that became Maine law in March 2008.

These are undeniably sad cases. But is the problem here that such lighters exist, or that children had access to them? Responsible grocery and convenience stores place their lighters high on counters or even behind them, keeping them away from 6-year-old fingers; a reasonable response by Norm St. Pierre might be to sue the grocery store for negligence or to advocate for grocery store safety regulations. And what are parents doing by leaving lighters that look like toys in places where children can get to them?

Is it the role of government to ban any object that might be dangerous if used irresponsibly? Or is it the role of government to make sure such objects are made available responsibly, and the role of citizens to behave responsibly?

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