Sometimes when I recall with romantic nostalgia my childhood, I wonder how we made it out of our formative years alive. My friends and I routinely played with toys that no company would consider manufacturing today. We romped on steel playgrounds anchored into crushed stone yards. And, we generally roamed the neighborhood unsupervised for hours at a time without fear of predators, abductors, molesters, or stray bullets.
Enough accidents and tragic occurrences raised the safety consciousness of a generation of Americans, so that now we can hardly avoid warnings of the mayhem possible from even the most innocent products. A few years ago, an online publication called Radar Magazine published a list of the most dangerous toys of all time. Obviously one can hardly expect such a list to be terribly scientific, but apparently the choices were made according to the ability of these toys to kill, maim, or generally be hazardous to the well being of children receiving them as gifts. I credit the authors of the list with spanning the last few generations of ingenious toy craft. I have no doubt that each of you will identify with at least one of these deliverers of destruction.
In tenth place was the Fisher-Price Harley Davidson Power Wheels Motorcycle. The throttle of this motorized vehicle apparently got stuck in full acceleration mode on occasion, sending the rider on an uncontrolled journey toward collision. In ninth place landed several 1979 Battlestar Galactica Missile Launchers, which propelled projectiles small enough to fit into unsuspecting throats.
Now, for the older children among us, we have our eighth place finisher, the Johnny Reb Cannon. While people apparently had no problems with its glorification of the Confederacy upon its release in 1961 (the centennial of the start of the Civil War), the Reb fired small, hard, plastic cannonballs up to 35 feet. Apparently, our toy makers don’t learn their lesson about small projectiles from one generation to another. At number seven, we have Creepy Crawlers. Of course, one could take one’s pick here from Easy-Bake Ovens to my personal favorite from my childhood, the Vacuuform. Nothing says safety like an open hot plate and exposed 100-watt light bulbs.
Another toy for the older generation comes in at number six. The Bat Masterson Derringer Belt Gun combined the cap-firing fun of a gun with a belt buckle. Number five brings us Sky Dancers – a toy of which I was blissfully ignorant before writing this sermon. Sold in the late 1990’s, one apparently stuck their little fairie feet into a launcher, pulled a string, and sent the twirling toys into the air.
We probably all remember those hideous (in my personal opinion) Cabbage Patch Dolls and number four brings us the 1996 Snacktime Kids Doll, which apparently had no shut off switch for its ravenous, munching jaws. At number three, Mini-Hammocks from EZ Sales. Unfortunately, children often found themselves emulating a chrysalis with no chance of emerging as a butterfly.
My personal favorite chimes in at number two. Gilbert, the company that gave us the infamous Erector Set, in 1951 produced the U-238 Atomic Energy Lab. For a mere $49.50, the kit came complete with four actual samples of Uranium-bearing ores, a Geiger counter, and a Spinthariscope (to see “live” radioactive disintegration). Lucky kids also received a comic book (Dagwood Splits the Atom) and a government manual titled, “Prospecting for Uranium.”
And now – drum roll please – the number one most dangerous toy of all time. Lawn Darts! Sort of a javelin-version of horseshoes (my set was known as Jarts), one lobbed the metal tipped arrows underhand toward a plastic hoop lying on the grass. The large spear impaled itself in the dirt, hopefully scoring points for the thrower.
Now, lest you think this particular survey unfairly castigates the dignity of these fine products, let’s review the known findings of reputable analysts. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Fisher-Price recalled more than 200,000 of the Power Wheels Motorcycles in 2000 after receiving nine reports of the foot pedal on these mechanized deathtraps sticking. One 3-year-old boy suffered cuts and bruises when his out-of-control bike ran into a home. Mattel offered a “Missile Mail-in” to replace the small, red plastic bullets launched from the Battlestar Gallactica toys. Even though the product met or exceeded all existing and proposed safety standards at the time, there were instances of accidental swallowing of missiles, including one reported death of a four-year-old child.
One can imagine similar reports from the Johnny Reb Cannon, and the danger from Creepy Crawler burns were probably only exceeded by the nauseating taste of the toxic chemicals comprising them. One product safety organization reportedly claimed that the Bat Masterson belt gun’s caps “can be ignited by friction and cause serious burns.” I won’t speculate what kind of friction they thought a 10-year old boy would experience on his belt.
Injuries from Galoob’s Sky Dancers reportedly included scratched corneas and temporary blindness, mild concussions, broken ribs and teeth, and facial lacerations that required stitches. Nearly nine million Sky Dancers were eventually recalled by 2000 and the company fined $400,000. After 35 fingers and ponytails fell victim to Snacktime Kids’ appetites, Mattel removed them from shelves forever, and offered 500,000 customers a full $40 refund.
Between 1984 and 1995, twelve children between the ages of five and seventeen years old became entangled and died when using the Mini-Hammocks. A seven-year-old girl suffered permanent brain damage from a near-strangulation. A mother found her five-year-old boy entangled, but was able to resuscitate him. As a result, three million of the devices were recalled.
I won’t even hazard to speculate about the impact of the Atomic Energy Lab.
After deciding that voluntary agreements on stricter labeling and marketing were not having the desired effect, in 1987 the Consumer Product Safety Commission voted to ban lawn darts. The Commission had records of three deaths associated with lawn darts since 1970. Lawn darts were linked with an estimated 700 emergency room visits each year. Commission Chair Ann Brown went so far as to recommend that “Parents should destroy these banned lawn darts immediately.” Commissioner Anne Graham added, “What limited recreational value lawn darts may have is far outweighed by the number of serious injuries and unnecessary deaths…There are numerous alternatives to lawn darts, and I would urge adults who have lawn darts to throw them away now.”
Created in 1972 (sadly too late for some of our examples), the Consumer Product Safety Commission is a federal agency charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risks of serious injury or death from thousands of types of consumer products under the agency’s jurisdiction. The Commission’s work to ensure the safety of consumer products is believed to have contributed to the 30% decline in the rate of deaths and injuries linked to such products.
The Commission has jurisdiction “over more than 15,000 kinds of consumer products used in and around the home, in sports, recreation and schools.” But, the Commission does not claim jurisdiction over all categories of products. For example, food, drugs, cosmetics, and medical devices fall under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration; automobiles, trucks, motorcycles, and tires are the responsibility of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Pesticides are included as part of the sphere of activity of the Environmental Protection Agency, and boats lie under the authority of the Coast Guard.
But, let’s move away from kid’s stuff (literally) and jump to the big three. Alcohol and tobacco are regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, whose primary function is to “ensure that only qualified persons engage in the alcohol beverage industry… [and] enforcing the laws relating to tobacco products advertising.” And firearms fall under the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. BATF’s mission statement describes it as a law enforcement agency “that protects our communities from violent criminals, criminal organizations, the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, the illegal use and storage of explosives, acts of arson and bombings, acts of terrorism, and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products.”
You may note a subtle distinction between the roles of these various entities. The Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates the distribution and the design and manufacture of consumer products. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau and the BATF, on the other hand, only regulate the distribution of the products within their sphere of operation, as well as the improper use of them by consumers. So, while the government empowers the Consumer Product Safety Commission to prevent companies from producing a dangerous product, the other agencies can only penalize those who abuse the laws regarding the sale, distribution, and use of alcohol, tobacco, and firearms once they have already been manufactured. One agency recaptures the cow after leaving the barn. The other keeps the calf from being born at all.
I am sure that critiquing the operations or the relative success of any of these important government bodies provides ample employment to various watchdog groups and analysts. Given their particular notoriety, one could certainly spend significant time examining the merits (or lack thereof) of certain historic BATF actions. Instead, I offer a suggestion that will simplify the work of every BATF agent by removing any ambiguities from their mission to protect this nation’s communities.
I call for a total ban on privately-owned handguns and for the confiscation and destruction of all such weapons in existence. I call for the elimination of all private ownership of handguns in this country and a ban on the production of handguns for the use of anyone but authorized law enforcement agents forever.
I understand that efforts to control handguns in this country have met with one failure after another. Since the shooting of James Brady in 1981 during John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, gun control advocates have run into one roadblock after another, largely due to the furious lobbying efforts of the National Rifle Association.
But, I do not call for gun control. I do not advocate for expanded background checks, or increased regulations on vendors. I do not care what the founders wrote 200 years ago or how even the most impartial jurist might interpret their meanings today. The time is long overdue for us as a nation to completely and forever cut our ties with all handguns as being inimical to human life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Now, I suspect even the most peace-loving among you might contemplate certain questions that arise from this call:
- What’s wrong with owning a handgun for target shooting?
- What’s wrong with carrying a handgun for my personal protection?
- How will we get handguns away from criminals?
- For one year, offer every recreational owner who turns in a handgun $100 in cash, or an appraised trade-in on a bow and arrow, rifle, shotgun, or other legal firearm of their choice – after that, all handguns will be confiscated and destroyed;
- Provide every collector of historic handguns free conversion of their weapon, making it incapable of firing to avoid confiscation;
- Offer every registered owner who turns in a protective handgun a free taser;
- Provide research and development funding to Colt Manufacturing and the New Jersey Institute of Technology, who are working to perfect “smart guns,” and then convert every handgun used by law enforcement agents to incorporate biometirc recognition; and
- Make mandatory sentencing associated with handgun-related crime so onerous, that no sane criminal will consider their use.