Dumb laws: not the merely annoying or restrictive, but the truly stupid, have long been fodder for late-night comedians, bored people on the Internet and compulsive trivia-seekers. Most are apocryphal or no longer on the books; some, though, do persist, producing great snickering sounds from those needing distraction. Here’s a look at 15 of the verifiable ones from across this great land, on all levels: state, city and county.
West Virginia: Roadkill may be taken home for supper.
Yes, it’s true. If you’re having trouble scraping up enough food to keep your family warm and healthy — and, in these hard times, who isn’t? — you’re legally permitted to scrape up any unfortunate animals from the road to turn into a tasty stew, fricassee or whatever you like. The law’s intentions are solid: the Department of Transportation can’t afford to regularly clean every single one, so this kind of ad hoc road maintenance not only helps keep the roads clean, but lowers the cost of maintenance as well.
Pinal County, Arizona: No outdoor dancing
Libertarian and anti-government cranks everywhere got a new hobbyhorse to ride over the San Tan Flat, an all-purpose restaurant with a large outdoor area in Pinal County, Arizona. For obscure reasons of their own, county officials decided to harp on a law from 1962 prohibiting outdoor dance halls, bowling alleys, penny arcades and so forth. With outdoor dancing very much part of the restaurant’s appeal, the owners were none too amused at being fined $700 every day for the silly violation. After national attention — Drew Carey did a segment about the problem for libertarian website Reason and George Will got a column out of it — the restaurant won in court. The law’s still on the books, ready to ruin any small business owner’s life whenever Pinal County feels like it.
Washington: Report your crimes ahead of time.
A strangely despairing law on the Washington books instructs prospective criminals to have the basic courtesy to, when they arrive at city limits, “telephone the chief of police" and inform him or her of what’s about to happen. The idea was to cut down on a spiraling crime rate. Needless to say, no potential criminal was ever dumb enough to actually do it.
Utah: No hunting whales
Not that there are any whales to hunt in Utah to begin with... It’s not clear why this law exists. It did, however, provide the capstone for one Richard Smith of Cornwall, who resolved to set out across America in July 2005 to systematically break as many arcane and downright silly laws as he could. In Utah, he planned to rent a boat and attempt, at least, to hunt a whale. Sadly, unlike, say the expeditions of Sir Richard Burton or Sir Edmund Hilary, history doesn’t record what became of this intrepid Brit.
Austin, Texas: You may not carry wire cutters in your back pocket.
Austin, Texas is a city with a large university population and plenty of computer money floating around, with a lively downtown area. It’s the 15th-biggest city in America. Despite that, it has a law dating back to the frontier days, when fence cutting and cattle stealing was a big deal. For that reason, don’t carry wire cutters in your pocket, though admittedly the situation is unlikely to come up; it’s a real city, not a rural area. The law is unlikely to cause any real hindrance.
Tennessee: You may not bring a skunk with you into the state.
This one sounds stupid, but it actually makes sense. Rabies are a problem in Tennessee, and skunks are big carriers of rabies, so it’s not a terribly random law (aside from the vexing question of what kind of person wants to adopt a skunk in the first place; zoos and scientists are, of course, exempt). Mostly the law attracts attention because skunks are funny. Fair enough.
North Carolina: No costume meetings
There is, of course, a perfectly good reason that North Carolina has stipulated that "no person or persons at least 16 years of age shall while wearing a mask, hood or device whereby the person, face or voice is disguised so as to conceal the identity of the wearer, hold any manner of meeting." The image raises to mind the law’s intended purpose: to prevent the KKK from gathering together and doing their nefarious thing. The problem here is that the law’s language doesn’t explicitly say the KKK is prohibited from gathering, which all things considered would seem to be the simplest way to go about it; instead, it inadvertently bans Halloween parties. Which is silly.
New Jersey: You may not pump your own gas
Life is hard in New Jersey, the nation’s butt of all jokes about filthy chemical waste and government corruption. One bright spot, perhaps: since 1949, it’s been impossible to pump your own gas in New Jersey. Instead, someone will come and pump it for you. The only other state with this law is Oregon. Five years ago, then governor John Corzine experimented with letting people pump their own gas on the New Jersey Turnpike, but no dice: the good people of New Jersey do not want to get out of their car or get gas on their clothing, even if it’ll save them five cents a gallon. Because after all, finding gainful employment is hard, and creating an essentially subsidized job position is a big help if you can’t actually get out of the garden state.
New Orleans: No cursing the fireman while he’s working.
It’s unclear what kind of terrible person would actually curse at a fireman risking life and limb while the fireman’s actually working. Apparently, though, this happens, so in New Orleans it’s illegal to curse at a fireman while they’re in the pursuit of their official duties. Off-duty, however, you are free to be totally rude to someone who’s only trying to help, if that’s your kind of thing.
Kennesaw, Georgia: You must own a gun
Since 1982, all heads of household in this small Southern town have been required to own a gun, though there’s no apparent penalty for not complying. The law was passed in response to a gun ban in Morton Grove, Illinois; the citizens here (whose population swelled exponentially since the law’s passage, from 5,000 to 30,000) take the usual kind of Southern pride in asserting their God-given Second Amendment rights in the most uselessly symbolic fashion possible, making sure the always shaky rights of white family men aren’t suppressed. Still, crime hasn’t risen, so no harm done.
Seaside, Florida: Every house must have a white picket fence and two-story porch.
Still, if you want to see legislated creepy conformity at its most innocuous yet annoying, Seaside, Florida has Kennesaw beat. Seaside is a planned community, and if you truly desire to live among people with similar priorities then this is the place to be. Here, every house has to have a white picket fence and two-story porch, and if that gives you the suburban creeps you probably don’t belong in Seaside.
Southington, Connecticut: The sale of Silly String is banned.
In 1996, the good citizens of this small Connecticut town underwent a minor furor when a festival was disrupted by pranksters who silly stringed motorcycle police, marching band members and cheerleaders. Most people would respond to this by just chasing down and beating the ever-living crap out of the perpetrators (or just responding in kind), but Southington spazzed, passing legislation to ban the sale of Silly String in the community and thereby dealing a permanent death-blow to graduation ceremonies everywhere.
Boulder, Colorado: No couches on the porch.
Sometimes stupid laws are the only logical response to stupid people, as with the fun-loving college students of Boulder. The University of Colorado at Boulder is, er, “renowned" as a party school, and its dedicated academic undergraduates enjoy unwinding after major events (such as a college football victory, whose earthshaking importance is understood by most Americans) by burning couches. To discourage such unruly and potentially dangerous pyromaniac moments, no couches are allowed on the porches of Boulder… A sad discouragement for transplanted Southerners who enjoy porch life.
Los Angeles, California: No toad licking
It’s unclear what’s dumber: the ever-inefficient war on drugs, or the kind of person who really wants to lick toad secretions in search of the ultimate high. Yes, if you want to actually take a crap shoot on the cane toad and see what happens, that option is sadly legally prohibited in Los Angeles. Stupid people, as ever, lead to stupid laws, and in any case the toads are a nuisance: the poison they excrete can get you high, but it can also kill your dog if you’re not paying close attention.
Tennessee: Atheists and preachers may not serve in public office.
Technically, this law exists: both ends of the religious spectrum are prohibited from serving in public office in Tennessee, which presumably means only mild-mannered believers are allowed to run for office. The law’s doubly dumb: not only does it make no sense, it’s also unconstitutional, meaning it’s unenforceable, meaning it’s pointless. But hey! Symbolic gestures for everybody!