A comprehensive resource for safe and responsible laser use
Federal rules for those owning or using lasers in the U.S.
In the U.S., it is legal under federal law to own a laser of any power. But often people talk about “illegal laser pointers”. This is somewhat confusing shorthand meaning that the manufacturer or seller illegally called a laser above 5 milliwatts a “pointer”, or illegally promoted it for pointing purposes.
Manufacturing and selling is illegal, not possession or safe use
Under federal law, it is perfectly legal to sell any laser above 5 mW as long as the laser complies with FDA/CDRH laser product requirements for labels, safety features, quality control, etc. AND as long as the laser is not promoted as a “laser pointer” or for pointing purposes.
If a laser over 5 mW is called a “pointer” or is sold for pointing purposes, the person doing the illegal action is the manufacturer or seller. If the consumer (end user) has a mislabeled or non-compliant laser, it is legal for them to possess it. We are unaware of any cases where a non-compliant consumer laser has been taken from its owner simply for being mislabeled or because it did not have the safety features of its class.
Of course, if a person uses a laser irresponsibly, then it may be confiscated. This confiscation could be done by private parties such as theater owners or concert promoters, or by police or other law enforcement officers.
What happens if I have an “illegal” (non-compliant) laser?
If a laser is found to be non-compliant, the manufacturer may be required by FDA to take corrective action such as offering a repair, recall or refund. However, it is not legally required for the owner to repair or turn in the laser. Consider a person who has a Toyota that is recalled for safety defects. If the person does not take their car to the dealer for corrective action, they still get to keep their car -- the government cannot confiscate it.
A request for clearer terminology
As a side note, instead of using the term “illegal pointer” it is better to use “non-compliant laser” or to state that a laser is “illegally labeled” or “illegally manufactured”. This helps the general public understand that it is the laser itself that is not legal.
To help clarify this, think about “illegal drugs” or “illegal handguns”. In common usage, these phrases refer to drugs or guns which may meet all manufacturing and safety standards, but which are illegal for the public to own or use. But “illegal laser pointers” are the opposite: they are legal to own and use; the problem is that they do not meet manufacturing and marketing standards. So that’s why we ask for people to use more precise terms.
Some laser uses are regulated at the federal level
All laser products (devices) must be certified by the manufacturer to comply with 21 CFR 1040.10 and 11. In addition, there are three laser uses which must comply with these regulations. The uses are: 1) medical; 2) surveying, leveling and alignment (SLA); and 3) demonstration lasers used in a classroom, for advertising or for laser light shows. Laser pointers have traditionally been regulated as demonstration lasers.
In addition to these U.S. federal regulations under FDA/CDRH, there are federal OSHA regulations for occupational laser use, and some states and localities have their own laser regulations. For more information check the various pages in the Laser pointer laws section of this website including the Rules for U.S. sellers page and the U.S. laws page, and contact the FDA/CDRH. You can also contact a firm specializing in laser product and use compliance.
UPDATE, FEB 2011: See the U.S. regulatory agencies page and scroll down to the “New 2010 Policy” section. This describes a new FDA/CDRH interpretation of “surveying, leveling and alignment” (SLA) lasers. As of Feb. 2011, it is unclear how this affects laser manufacturers or users.
DISCLAIMER: The above is not legal advice. If you are in trouble or need more detailed advice, consult a lawyer and/or a laser compliance expert.