Thursday, July 21, 2005

Abe the Gun Runner

On our return from vacation in France, alert Customs officials found contraband in our luggage: an illegal toy gun. Americans can rest easier knowing that the vigilance of our government has foiled another smuggling attempt.

The story began when Viper (age 15) spent about $14 winning a plastic, toy gun and plastic ammo (total value, about $2) at a carnival shooting gallery. We were none too pleased when he chose that prize, but there it is. The gun was excessively realistic-looking, so we informed Viper that he would not be allowed to take it anywhere that would entail a risk of him being mistakenly shot by a police officer.

Normally, Mrs. Abe delights in handling all aspects of the Customs Declaration process, but for some reason this time she put my name on the form. We had some French food in the luggage, so that had to be examined. The food was no problem, but in the process, the deadly toy gun was discovered. The first agent called another, who called another, who finally found the exact rule on the computer: it was illegal to bring Viper's toy gun into the US. We read the rule off the screen, and the toy lacked the required orange plug in the barrel and was clearly verbotten.

The toy was confiscated. I had to have my passport photocopied and sign a form acknowledging the confiscation. I wasn't frogmarched out of the hall in handcuffs to be stripsearched or even fined, but I do wonder if I'm now on some list of prior smugglers. The next time they may not go so easy on me...

I have nothing against the agents, who were only doing their jobs in a professional manner, but the whole thing was a silly waste of time and money. I know the rationale. A realistic toy gun could lead to a fatal accidental shooting in a split second decision. I'm sure children have been injured/killed in these kinds of incidents, but, realistically, there was zero chance of that happening to Viper with this gun. It would probably have never left our house (had it made it that far).

In the guise of protecting people more and more extensive regulations are promulgated dealing with smaller and smaller risks. But risk can never be eliminated, and what are we giving up in this quest to do that? No one is expected to know the rules, and no one can. It took the agents 10 minutes to figure out that the toy was illegal, and this is just one tiny tip of a massive regulatory iceberg. Each rule is a little (or sometimes a lot) less freedom and more bureaucracy and red tape. Massive complexity turns everyone into lawbreakers, since we can't always comply with a vast legal web we don't know about.

So now I'm a smuggler. I thought it would be more glamorous than this.


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