Along South Street in Philadelphia, they are as bountiful as beepers. Dangling from teens' key chains, they look like pint-size light sabers, toys for mischievous youths trapped in the tedious 20th century.
They are laser pointers - the pet rock of the 1990s. But unlike their placid predecessors, they can infuriate as well as entertain. Indeed, these short metal cylinders - which can shoot a tiny beam of red light more than a quarter of a mile - have become a civic nuisance nationwide.
Police complain that the red dot looks like the laser sight of a handgun. Teachers say the pointers are disruptive in class. And some doctors worry that the beam can cause permanent damage to eyes. As a result, cities and schools across the country are taking action to control the new crimson menace.
Earlier this month, Philadelphia became one of the latest municipalities to outlaw the sale of laser pointers to minors. Other towns from Virginia to Illinois have regulated the sale of laser pointers, and New York City added its name to the list this week. As the movement to regulate pointers spreads, the implements of this fledgling fad are already on the brink of becoming endangered species.
Originally used in corporate boardrooms as a visual aid during presentations, the pointers used to cost from $80 to $100. But the price has plummeted since the Asian market faltered earlier this year. This spring, the devices could be purchased for as little as $9 to $30 - and that's when their popularity began to soar.
On the street
On South Street, they can be found in most novelty shops and electronics and office-supply stores. Some come in the shape of a large bullet, others come with a set of attachments that can project patterns, such as a happy face or phrases like "hasta la vista, baby."
All of them, though, are used to attract attention. Young people shine the pointers on friends, performers, athletes, and movie screens. "Kids like it because it's something you can annoy people with," says Gus Rogers, owner of The Perfect Word gift shop here.
Not only that, but considering the pointer's 150- to 1,500-foot range, the user can usually remain anonymous. "When you shine it on someone, nobody can tell who has it," says Sarah Patton, a teenager in Malvern, Pa.
Those characteristics are exactly what have upset many people. In schools, dozens of principals and boards have banned the lasers altogether.
"They disrupt school," says Stephen Swymer, principal of General Wayne Middle School in Malvern. "They are doing a tremendous disservice to American education."
Other laser-pointer critics say the toys pose more serious dangers as well. Because the red dot projected by a laser pointer looks like a gun sight, people who are targeted with the pointers may think they're in danger. In addition, the practice of shining a laser pointer at police officers has developed into a mini-craze called "dotting."
"Out here, if someone is pointing one at us, we would think it's an actual gun," says a police officer on patrol on South Street, who says he knows the laser pointers well. "A lot of veteran officers get shook up about them. We try to locate who has it and tell them not go around pointing it at people."
For this reason, Philadelphia's new law also takes aim at such behavior. It prohibits shining the red beam on anyone. Those who violate the ordinance will be issued a citation and fined as much as $100.
Yet perhaps the greatest concern about laser pointers relates to safety. Some critics say the gadgets can temporarily blind or permanently injure people if the beam is directed into their eyes.
Laser pointers carry a warning label directing people to avoid eye contact with the beam, and in October the American Academy of Ophthalmology issued an advisory to school officials and parents, warning them about eye damage from misuse of the pointers among children.
Still, some physicians say the hazard has been blown out of proportion. A seventh-grader in Kansas City reportedly suffered permanent damage this week from a having a laser pointer shined in his eye for a long time, but it is the first such example. "Frankly it's a minimal danger - I have not seen any injuries from laser pointers," says William Tasman, chief ophthalmologist at Wills Eye Hospital here. He points out that the 5-milliwatt capacity of most lasers is quite low.
Industry officials also say that the dangers have been overstated, and that there are many other uses for the toys.
"It's like urban legends. People find a bandwagon to jump on and get carried away," says Delena Giattino, president of MiracleBeam, a laser pointer distribution company in Dayton, Ohio, that has sold nearly 1 million of the pointers since May.
Ms. Giattino points out that the laser is quite popular among pet owners.
Chris McGee of Pottstown, Pa., owns a laser pointer and agrees that animals are intrigued by it.
"My girlfriend and I drive our cats crazy with it," he says. "They chase the red beam all over the house."