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20/20 vision: Are contact lenses more regulated than guns?

Posted Jan. 02, 2013, at 12:37 p.m.

In the wake of the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, much has been said on the subject of gun control. In Maine, our attention was recently focused on Justin Dean and his three-hour, Rambo-style Portland walkabout, carrying (legally) a loaded assault rifle with a 30-round ammo clip, resulting in dozens of 911 calls and hundreds of terrified residents.

Virtually everyone has now weighed in on the issue of “gun control,” from the National Rifle Association CEO frothing at the mouth, advocating for guards with guns in schools, to extremists on the other end of the spectrum pushing for the confiscation of all guns.

As immortalized in an old Buffalo Springfield song lyric, we are at a point in our history where, “There’s battle lines being drawn. Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”

Everyone is wrong. The issue isn’t guns. The issue is us. We are “wrong.” We are broken.

Here’s an example: For almost 30 years now, I’ve worn contact lenses. A short while ago, I tried to order new contacts and was reminded by the contact lens company that I needed to renew my prescription before they could sell me contacts. Why? In 2003, the government decided that I could no longer be trusted with the possession and use of contact lenses on my own.

With the passage of HR 3140, Congress decreed that I, along with approximately 36 million Americans, could no longer manage the health and safety of my own eyes.

The Fairness to Contact Lens Consumer Act, signed into law by George W. Bush on Dec. 6, 2003, included a provision that makes it illegal for anyone to purchase new contact lenses without a prescription. And to get a new prescription, you must visit and pay an optometrist to puff your eyes with a burst of air, dilate them with a painful chemical and shine a bright light into them, all in the name of healthy eye care.

In many states, it is the “law” that this must be done at least once a year. In Maine it is a period not to exceed 24 months.

How did the U.S. government get in the business of legislating how often I must pay my optometrist to check my eyes before I am allowed to buy a little lens that is more than 50 percent water?

First, the Contact Lens Association hired lobbyists to help push for a new federal law. Then, Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., the chairman of the Oversight and Investigation Subcommittee, introduced the Contact Lens Consumer Health Protection Act.

“Contact lenses are regulated medical devices requiring a valid prescription from a licensed doctor,” he said. “Third-party vendors that overfill prescriptions or who do not verify the prescriptions they are filling endanger the health and welfare of the customers they purport to serve. My legislation will ensure the proper balance of consumer choice and the health and safety of the American public.”

Interesting.

Whitfield sponsored a law that makes it mandatory for every contact lens wearer to “register” with an optometrist before they are allowed to buy contact lenses. It also requires every contact wearer to submit to a new exam every one or two years to verify that they qualify to wear contacts based upon what he described as the “safety of the American public.”

This is the same representative that voted against HR 2122, the “Mandatory Gun Show Background Check Act.” This is the same representative who opposes any new restrictions on assault weapons and opposes any type of registry for gun owners.

How can it be possible for the same political leader to pass legislation making contact lenses “regulated” with the requirement that all users submit to a qualification exam every two years (or less) based upon “public safety,” yet oppose even the most moderate changes to our gun laws?

In America, every single contact lens wearer and every single contact lens is regulated and reviewed every 24 months by federal law. And since 2003, how many protests have there been?

It was perfectly legal for James Holmes, the murderer of a dozen people in a Colorado movie theater last year, to go online and purchase 6,000 rounds of ammunition (most used for his AR-15 assault rifle) without any background check, yet it is illegal for me to purchase two Acuvue contact lenses without an exam and the approved legal documentation.

None of this suggests that eye health is not important or worthy of regulatory involvement. It is. But when one elected official advocates for “the safety of the American public” on one issue (eye care) and seemingly ignores it on another (gun policy), it is fair to ask why.

Could money be the answer? The American Optometric Association gave more than $1,076,920 in political donations last year ($7,500 to Whitfield) to advance their interests. The NRA donated many millions (more than $41,000 to Whitfield over the years) to advance its interests.

The failures of our politicians must be considered the failures of each of us.

We must tell, not ask, Gov. Paul LePage to meet with the leaders of Maine’s House and Senate right now to work on important issues. We must tell, not ask, President Barack Obama to make the tough decisions needed regardless of political priorities.

To do these things, we must commit to a common purpose: not to complain. Not to attack those with different views than ours. But to act, engage and educate ourselves in ways that will inspire thoughtful, balanced solutions.

Stephen Woods is currently the chairman of the Yarmouth Town Council, the owner and CEO of TideSmart Global and a declared candidate for the 2014 Maine gubernatorial race.

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