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Super Soaker Squirt Weapon Spurs Boston Controversy

By Jendi B. Reiter, Crimson Staff Writer

While George Bush and Boris Yeltsin may be reducing their stockpiles of nuclear weapons, the arms race is certainly escalating in Boston. Forge those puny water pistols of the days past, now there's the Super Soaker.

Perhaps this year's hottest-selling summer fun item, the Super Soaker looks like a neon machine gun and can shoot a stream of water up to 50 feet; the largest size, Super Soaker 200, holds two liters of water.

Two liters and fifty feet means plenty of fun for today's kids who look beyond dated cowboy role models to the superior fire power of Rambo and the Terminator.

The Super Soaker craze may be the latest sign of a jaded society's need for ever-increasing thrills: more drug use, more transvestites on Donahue, more fire power in our water guns.

Whatever the reason for their popularity, the guns has become not only the fastest selling toy but also the most controversial.

Earlier this month a Boston woman and her child were shot in the fact with a Super Soaker loaded with bleach, and another child was shot to death when the target of his Super Soaker attack retaliated with a real gun.

Concerned that the toys could lead to further outbreaks of violence, Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn called on stores to voluntarily remove the water pistols from their shelves.

According to opponents of the gun, a regular water gun attack can be shrugged off, but a trigger-happy individual is not likely to be so philosophical about being drenched by a forceful blast from a Super Soaker. The greater volume of the Super Soaker also makes a bleach attack more dangerous.

And Flynn has painted the gun as a sort of "gateway" to urban violence the way marijuana is to hard drug abuse.

But critics of the mayor have argued that to stop people from shooting each other the city should ban handguns not squirt guns.

Many Boston stores have complied with the mayor's request and removed the Super Soaker from their shelves. But most have not agreed without reluctance--gearing the loss of a popular item will further hurt already lagging sales.

Other retailers are striking a blow--or maybe a squirt--for individual liberties and the profit margin by maintaining that their customers are mature enough to decide for themselves whether to become water-toting Rambos this summer.

Big chain stores like CVS, Bradlees, K Mart, Walgreen's, and Woolworth's have all ceased to sell the water gun in the area.

But it still hurts to turn away customers looking for the water guns. "People have been asking for them left and right--that's a lot of sales lost," says one employee at the CVS on Tremont Street in Boston, adding that all but one Super Soaker had been sold out by the time they decided to stop selling them.

Bradlees' media relations specialist Coleman Nee commented that their Boston store may start selling Super Soakers again once they find out more about how the community feels. Nee said no consumers had ever asked them to stop selling it or ever said it was dangerous, yet the store had to act in the interests of the city of Boston, as represented be the mayor.

"It financially hurts us not to have them on the shelf, but I think the whole issue transcends mere numbers--it's a matter of community relations," Nee says.

But isn't it just a water gun? Wasn't Murphy Brown just a TV show? Maybe a harmless entertainment is being blamed for unrelated social problems. Greg Miller, media relations specialist for Child World toy stores, certainly thinks so.

"it seems kind of silly...It seems as it this squirt gun has been chosen to be the scapegoat for larger problems," says Miller, "It is just a squirt gun, after all."

Although child World has several locations throughout the suburbs it has no outlets in the city and felt little compulsion to heed Flynn's letter.

Some Boston stores are rising to the challenge, including just For Fun, the Sharper Image and Urban Outfitters. According to employees at Just for Fun, a toy store in Newbury Street, "anything can be dangerous, What about a baseball bat?"

Beneath that attitude lies a deeper conviction among toy store owners: that stores can't and shouldn't try to second guess the few who will misuse the toy--it's impossible and short-changes the majority of customers who will not misuse the squirt gun.

At Urban Outfitters in Cambridge, there is a principle to defend. "I think people are going to be able to decide for themselves. If someone wants to get it, they should have the option," says the manager, "It's not something that should be banned across the country."

A squirt gun is an unlikely symbol for a libertarian movement and "getting government off our backs." But if store owners are denied one of their most popular toys in a recession starved economy, the nest slogan heard on the streets of Boston could be "live free or dry."

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