Float trips are a way of Missourian life. The summer rolls around, and the Niangua, Jacks Fork and strings of other waterways are covered with inner tubes and canoes.
The people in those vessels, however, are out for different reasons. Some boats are launched by church groups. Others are full of families. And, inevitably, some are carrying college students or other young things who are just out to drink in the sun.
At times the latter get raucous enough to disturb other floaters. This is why state Sen. Delbert Scott this year sponsored SB2, a bill meant to curb “chaotic” floating behavior by prohibiting “certain activities” on the rivers of the state.
*SB2 didn’t make it past committee hearings but partially passed as part of a larger crime bill, HB62, that becomes effective on Aug. 28. As the floating season draws to a close, now seems a good time to reflect on the new rules — and why it seems unlikely that they'll stop rowdy rafters next year.
Had SB2 passed, the following would have become illegal on state rivers: possessing or using a beer bong; possessing or consuming Jell-O shots; possessing or using any container that holds more than 1 gallon of alcohol; distributing bead necklaces; or possessing Styrofoam coolers (those presumably for environmental reasons).
In HB62, takes on three of those measures passed: possessing a beer bong (or anything else used to rapidly consume alcohol); possessing any container that holds more than four gallons of alcohol; and possessing an expanded polypropylene cooler.
In columns posted on his Web site, Scott explained that his primary aim was to make the rivers “peaceful and relaxing,” which is fair enough. But he also said he was trying to account for an influx of “wild party-goers” who had left rivers on Missouri’s federal land because of similar national regulations; he writes, “this just moved these individuals from those waterways to our state rivers — that’s why I filed Senate Bill 2.”
It’s hard to gauge the strength of his implied claim — that similar federal laws have worked, so these will, too — as exact amounts of people go unspecified. We do know, however, that out of Missouri’s 68,885 square miles, only 4.6 percent are federally owned. We also know the state has nigh 100 rivers. In senate sessions, anecdotal testimony was given in support of the federal regulations, but those stories don't tell us what effect the rules for the many more state rivers will have.
I more fundamentally doubt the power of such measures because they’re based on correlations instead of causation. The issue as Scott proposes it — that drunk people are ruining the scenic waterways — is not the fault of beer bongs (and certainly not Jell-O shots nor plastic necklaces). It’s not even the fault of alcohol itself; if Scott thought no one could drink without bothering others, why not suggest prohibition?
The cause is irresponsible, excessive drinking (and a subsequent lack of consideration), which is not addressed by the bill or the amendment. Trying to end that problem by outlawing a few bits of paraphernalia is like outlawing backseats so teenagers won’t have premarital sex.
Take the one that outlaws containers that hold more than four gallons of alcohol. This presumably is based on the assumption that people who get really drunk must drink a lot, but it doesn’t follow that they only drink out of barrels. Assuming people can fight the urge to put kegs in their collapsible, tippy canoes, they can still get as drunk as they like on 12-ounce cans of beer.
In “On Liberty,” 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill addresses an eerily similar issue: “The limitation in number … of beer and spirit houses, for the express purpose of rendering them more difficult of access, and diminishing occasions of temptation, not only exposes all to an inconvenience because there are some by whom the facility would be abused, but is suited only to a state of society in which the labouring classes are avowedly treated as children or savages, and placed under an education of restraint.”
I don’t mean to defend anyone’s inalienable right to bong a beer. I also am not particularly bothered by the rowdy floating crowd. But if I were really trying to subdue them, I’d think long-term and attack the problem behaviorally, instead of curbing a few novelty freedoms that one can easily overindulge without.
Perhaps that could mean educating young people about the dangers of excessive drinking by, say, telling them before they hop on the water that in a review of all the drownings on Missouri rivers over a 10-year period, alcohol was confirmed as a contributing factor in 42 percent of cases. Or perhaps we should look to parents to better instill manners early on.
Granted, it might seem overly idealistic to imagine that behavior can be changed. But that hope also seems, to me at least, less naive than believing that any segment of society is controlled by the presence or absence of a funnel.
Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.