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This paper explores how, in the two decades following the laser's invention, the popular image of the laser weapon was transformed from a terrifying "death ray" capable of contaminating large areas to a surgically precise tool and rationale for a major new defense program. Whereas previous histories of the laser treat its popularizations as irrelevant to real-world developments, this account emphasizes that mass media provide sites for scientists and engineers to vie for control over the meaning and direction of technological development. It shows how the laser as a symbol came to link two very different applications: the everyday use of low-energy lasers to increase the "precision" of technologies, and the experimental development of high-energy lasers that would be destructive. I argue that the symbolic appeal of laser weapons made the laser a central part of President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative or "Star Wars" missile defense program.