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Daughter Killed by Lawn Dart : Grieving Father Is Given a Bitter Lesson in Civics

March 03, 1988|BOB BAKER | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — "I took American government in high school," David Snow said. "I know how these things are supposed to work."

This is a story about how they really work.

For the fourth time since June, Snow this week came here from Riverside to vent his outrage and muster allies in his struggle to persuade the federal government to ban the toy that killed his little girl.

This has been the focus of his life since her death a year ago, and he is beginning to pay a heavy price. His nerves are shot, his bank account is shot, his nights are tormented, his other child is starved for attention and his mortgage payment is overdue. This Sunday would have been Michelle Snow's eighth birthday and daddy wanted to give her a present. He wanted to tell her--silently, tearfully--that he had made good on his promise to take a recreational product called the lawn dart off every store shelf in America.

It was a "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" dream, but unlike the movie this one hasn't had a happy ending. This one may never have an ending. On Wednesday the Consumer Product Safety Commission voted 2 to 1 against Snow's plea for a ban, forcing him to return to Congress and lobby for legislation outlawing the dart.

A meticulous, tenacious man who served a year in Vietnam at 17 as an Army helicopter gunner, Snow originally thought his case against the lawn dart was so black and white that it would bore though all philosophical and political differences.

The darts--heavy, metal-tipped objects tossed into rings in the grass--are not supposed to be used by children without adult supervision. Eighteen years ago the federal government wrote that into law, declaring they could not be sold in toy stores and had to carry danger-to-kids labels. However, many stores and manufacturers have ignored the regulations.

Snow, a 40-year-old aerospace production supervisor, knew nothing of this when a dart thrown by another child sailed into his front lawn last April and embedded itself in Michelle's brain. He didn't even know he owned the darts. They had come in a package containing other, safer games. The warning label on the package was tiny. He hadn't seen it.

Snow's well-publicized crusade took off quickly. Under his pressure, the commission last summer revealed that lawn darts had sent nearly 5,000 children to hospital emergency rooms during the last decade. It also conducted a study that confirmed widespread marketing violations.

Decision Delayed

The commission, long under fire from consumer advocates and Congress for timidity, held a hearing last October to consider banning the lawn dart but delayed a decision. It was then that a hard reality began to close in on David Snow, who had never ventured into the realm of government until Michelle died. This might take time, a long time. Time he didn't have. The way he saw it, the government had to ban lawn darts now, before more people began buying them for spring and summer recreation.

Tuesday morning, the day before the commission's scheduled hearing, Snow rose in Washington and worked the telephone. He called congressional aides, consumer advocates and lawyers, the network of people he has clung to during his makeshift education as a citizen lobbyist.

He had to move quickly. A sympathetic consumer protection commission staff member had warned him that two of the three members of the commission were certain to oppose a ban on lawn darts. The best he could hope for was a motion that in effect accepted a pledge by lawn dart manufacturers to tighten their marketing standards.

When Snow made his first trip to Washington, legislation had already been introduced to restructure the consumer safety commission. Thanks to Snow, a provision was added to the bill that would require the commission to ban the lawn dart. But the bill was not moving to the Senate floor, seemingly stalled because of the absence of a key Senate Commerce Committee member, Albert Gore (D-Tenn.), who is off running for President.

Snow walked into the chill air, caught a cab to Congress and sat down with a Senate subcommittee staff member who had been helpful in the past. They chatted in a blur of jargon and statistics and criteria. It was unconscionable, Snow insisted, for the commission to rely on voluntary compliance when a new survey showed lawn darts still being sold in toy stores.

Sees Crime Happening

"These people are going to sit down tomorrow and as far as I'm concerned commit a crime," Snow said.

"It's not going to be out of character," the aide said.

"What can I do? Can I get somebody to introduce another bill that would just ban lawn darts?"

Yes, the aide said. Of course, taking lawn darts out of the commission reform bill would weaken that bill because it would rob it of a popular provision, he explained. "But you have to do what's best for you."

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