US bill seeks to criminalize crimes committed using drones

DJI drone threat

In these increasingly fraught times, and as debate rages over the future of legal abortion and whether to tighten gun regulations, four US legislators have demonstrated a truly bizarre sense of priority by introducing a bill that would outlaw using drones for acts already defined as crimes or otherwise prohibited.

A piece of “look at how concerned we are for your safety” theatrics, introduction of the draft legislation seeks to prohibit activities already banned by Federal Aviation Administration regulations or existing laws – such as removing ID tags and anti-collision lights, or transporting narcotics. It follows  at least two previous moves by US politicians to act against UAV as potentially terrible threats to public order and safety when in the wrong hands. 

For the record, there are nearly 1.8 million registered drones in the US, compared to over 400 million guns. No stats exist yet on the abundance of wrong hands.

While the peril of nefarious deployment does indeed exist – look how effective and deadly the craft have been (mis)used by Mexican drug cartels – the questionable political sincerity and general probity of the alarmist bill becomes evident when its backers (and, let’s face it, most everyone else) cheer the same kinds of deployment of repurposed consumer drones by bomb-dropping, medicine-transporting, intelligence-gathering Ukraine freedom fighters.

ReadWhite House seeks to enlarge actors authorized to track and zap suspect drones 

The risibly redundant effort to criminalize crimes in a specific drone context is all the more bizarre, meanwhile, in it being backed by both Democrat and Republican House legislators – mutually hostile cohorts that haven’t been able to cooperate since the fashion of knee britches and stockings went the way of, well, knee breeches and stockings.

So what’s in the text – and why the rush? 

After boilerplate laudatory throat-clearing noting “drone technology has the potential to revolutionize commerce, military operations, law enforcement, and various industries, as well as recreation in general,” the Drone Act of 2022 reels off a list of ways UAVs could be (and in some cases, have been) used in criminal acts. Those include human and drug running, armed attacks on enemies – including police forces – and recon missions that might aid plotters of terrorism. Again, that sounds a bit like Ukraine, but context is everything – which, indeed, makes the bill seem so ill-adapted to US society today.

The proposed law also creates criminal penalties for already illegal or banned activities like delivering contraband to prisons; interfering with firefighters, law enforcement, or first responders; and violation of restricted airspaces (noting 766 UAV sightings in banned areas around airports in the first half of 2021 alone). 

All well and good – but all covered by existing statutes.

ReadDrone pilot ordered to pay $37,000 fine for endangering military aircraft 

It also makes it a crime to attach a weapon to a drone, though – this being a bill written by US politicians – that part may be amended following input from their local National Rifle Association representative.

Indeed, one of the things that makes the triple push for laws (re)banning criminal acts particular to drones so irking is how it flies in the face the logic many of its very backers use to resist action on things like gun control. If Second Amendment purists railed against calls for restrictions on assault rifles after the Uvalde massacre with arguments the assassin could have killed his victims using a baseball “bat”  instead, where are they now with “flying Louisville Slugger” defenses of drones?

After all, UAVs don’t fly contraband to prisons; crooked pilots do.

ReadSouth Carolina busts gangs flying contraband to prison by drone 

The bill’s authors have pointed to deadly drone use by groups like ISIS in the Middle East in justifying their haste to pass a law that would be applicable in Sacramento and Savannah – places with dramatically different activity and threat variables than Syria’s civil war. That’s not to say the potential for evil use of drones in the US doesn’t exist. But action on that should logically come after moves to contain readily available hardware representing far larger clear, present, and increasingly lethal threats to society and its members.

Photo: Harold Mendoza/Unsplash

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