The Soaking Of America

Lonnie Johnson knows a lot about fun, and how it can get out of hand. The missile he fashioned at the age of 13 from a television antenna blew up on the launching pad. When he was 14, the Mobile, Ala., police called him in about a rocket-fuel fire in his high-school hallway.

Last week the 42-year-old inventor was defending his handiwork again. His toy sensation, the Super Soaker water gun, ignited a new debate on the relationship of child's play and urban violence. A 15-year-old Boston youth, Christopher Miles, was killed May 29 when a Super escalated into real gunfire. Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn asked stores to stop selling the plastic weapons, which can spray a target 50 feet away. And the campaign spread when two young Harlem residents were wounded by a gunman enraged at being soaked. Police reported other violent incidents sparked by squirt guns in Pennsylvania, Oregon and Washington, and a Michigan state senator proposed a high-power water-gun ban. "It's not a toy," he said.

Larami Corp., the Super Soaker manufacturer, released a statement of sympathy for Miles's family but insisted the bulky, fluorescent gun could never be mistaken for anything but a plaything. To blame urban violence on a toy "is simply to confuse the issue," it said. Boston city councilman John Nucci agreed. " I think the mayor's all wet on this one," he says. "It's a really silly idea to point to a toy as a major force behind urban crime. If someone gets beaten with a baseball bat next week, will we run to the playgrounds and ban baseball bats too?" All that was missing from the controversy last week was a proposal to register the toy weapons--and an immediate denunciation by the NRA.

Getting the water guns off the streets may be difficult, if not impossible. Sales of the Super Soaker, in five sizes priced $5 to $40, have already passed 10 million. One American retail chain sold 225,000 in just one week, and competitors are rushing similar devices onto the market. Unfortunately, the toy captivates more than just the subteen squirt-gun set. Teenagers consider it an important technological advance in the ancient effort to annoy their elders. Senior citizens in Michigan have found themselves doused after lowering their car windows to give directions to allegedly lost young drivers. In Massachusetts, police have heard reports of bleach-loaded Super Soakers.

Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint thinks the move from squirt guns to Super Soakers mirrors the escalation of violence in the streets. " It's kind of like drug dealers moving up from handguns to Uzis," he says. He doubts that water guns relieve unhealthy aggressive feelings and thinks parents should boycott stores that sell the toys.

Most police had more serious problems to worry about. Roseville, Mich., police inspector Ronald MacKool released the teenagers who soaked him after adding their Super Soaker to the property-room collection. "We will probably auction them," MacKool says. " But then, there is the question of putting them back on the streets."