Many of the problems with modern American politics stem from a media obsessed with creating a dramatic narrative and politicians dying to be on center stage. We don’t have to look any further than Raleigh’s recent case of the missing zebra cobra (N. nigricincta) to find an example.
Residents of Wake County were served nearly hourly updates from the local press when a zebra cobra was reported missing by its owner on June 29. With breathless handwringing, the media reported on the search for the missing snake, and when it was finally caught, the Raleigh News & Observer published this play-by-play account of how the snake was heroically captured.
The press, mostly local but also national, worked feverishly to educate citizens on the zebra cobra, including a story from USA Today which assured readers that the snake was not indigenous to North Carolina.
I, for one, was astonished to learn that cobras are not indigenous to the Old North State.
After the cobra’s capture, two incredibly predictable things happened. First, the owner of the snake, Christopher Gifford, 21, was charged with 40 counts under North Carolina law. These charges are misdemeanors under North Carolina law and can translate into up to 60 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. The accusations against Gifford include keeping venomous snakes in improper enclosures and one charge for not reporting the zebra cobra missing when it initially escaped. Mr. Gifford has a right to due process, but if the charges are accurate, then a dangerous animal was handled inappropriately, and if it was provoked, it could have seriously harmed or killed someone.
However, the second predictable outcome was the immediate reaction of politicians to create more laws to protect the vulnerable hearth and home.
State Sen. Wiley Nickel (D-Wake) has announced that he will be introducing legislation for a new state law to govern the handling of dangerous animals, specifically venomous snakes.
As quoted by CBS 17 in Raleigh, “It’s clear though, our laws do not go far enough. We need to have better protection in place for folks, and how we get there, we’re still trying to figure it out,” Nickel said.
There are currently no specific details on what will be included in the legislation, which seems strange since Nickel has said he plans to file the legislation within two weeks.
Let’s pause for just a moment to recap the situation. A young man in Raleigh owned a venomous snake that somehow got loose. The snake was caught, and the young man has been charged with 40 criminal counts. Now, a state legislator wants to create new laws in the spirit of protecting citizens – even though it appears that what happened was already illegal.
Setting aside that no one disputes that a cobra is dangerous, this type of situation is how a nanny state is created. Politicians feel the need to show their usefulness, be seen in the press, and generate goodwill with their constituents. Therefore, they leap at the chance to “draft new legislation” or “launch an investigation” or “call for hearings” on matters ranging from silly to serious. Elected officials are afflicted with the constant need to do something to justify their elected positions.
Sen. Nickel told the liberal Raleigh News & Observer, “We’ve got enough going on in the world right now where people shouldn’t have to worry about a neighbor with 70 dangerous venomous snakes living next to them.”
What does that mean about people that live next to zoos or even a state or local park? Six species of venomous snake are indigenous to North Carolina – the copperhead, cottonmouth, timber rattlesnake, pygmy rattlesnake, eastern diamondback rattlesnake, and eastern coral snake. Any of these could be in a park that someone lives beside.
Will park rangers need to document and publicize the number of venomous snakes in those parks? Will that make the public safer?
I am not trying to make light of the danger of an angry cobra. I am calling into question why lawmakers rush to create new laws when trying to correct something already illegal.
Setting aside the fact that current law may already be sufficient, there is also the genuine possibility that banning the ownership or sale of certain animals will create a high-stakes black market for those same animals. Economists call this sort of situation “bootleggers and Baptists,” where the group calling for increased regulation gets support from the group that can make a pretty penny by breaking the law – similar to what we saw with Prohibition.
Before we rush to create new laws about something we don’t understand yet (and Sen. Nickel has admitted that he is new to this issue), maybe our elected officials should ask if we have too many laws already. Asking that question would have prevented a lot of the unintended consequences in history.
This article originally appeared in the August print edition of Carolina Journal.