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Super water guns make a splash with younger set


It's going to be a wet summer.

That's not a weather forecast but a statement of fact, thanks to an army of youngsters prowling metropolitan neighborhoods with high-powered Super Soaker water guns.

"They're neat because they shoot far and they look strange," said Jason Vickers, 8, of Ellicott City, who owns two.

Super Soakers, marketed by Larami Corp. of Philadelphia, can hold up to a half-gallon of water, with a pump-based air pressure system that delivers a jet spray as far as 50 feet. Since last year they have been the hottest -- or maybe the coolest -- toys on the market.

They've stirred up plenty of controversy in the process. In some cities, authorities are trying to ban them after supersoakings have been blamed for provoking assaults and killings. So far in Baltimore, they seem to be just plain fun -- for the squirters, if not the squirtees.

Jason's mother, Metha C. Vickers, is trying to keep him well-equipped for neighborhood water battles. She said Jason had been at a disadvantage with the small Super Soaker 10, so she bought a model that holds more water and squirts farther.

"I would say, 'He's outgunned! We've got to take care of that,' " Mrs. Vickers said with a laugh. "It's like you've got to outdo the kid next door. If not, your kid is going to drown."

Gene A. Staudt Jr., 7, a neighbor, marveled at the range of his weapon.

"If you're standing here," he said while pointing to a house dozens of feet away, "you can shoot all the way over to that deck."

The long squirting range has propelled Super Soakers to the top of the toy industry's charts, says Ed Roth, vice president of toy services at the NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y., marketing research firm.

Mr. Roth said that 3.3 million of the water guns were sold in 1991, and that the numbers for the first four months of this year could mean even higher sales in 1992. He projects that the guns ultimately could corral $100 million for Larami. The toys cost $5 to $35 in Baltimore-area stores, depending on their capacity and range.

He said companies that make similar high-powered water guns, such as Tyco, have done well, although their sales lag behind Larami's.

Most are in bright, fluorescent colors, but they're shaped like assault weapons. The battery-operated Water Machine Gun, a Larami product, boasts Desert Storm camouflage colors and is mounted on a tripod. It resembles an automatic weapon and can fire up to 250 bursts a minute.

Police said the guns have not caused concern in Baltimore. But in other areas of the country, the soakers have been involved in grim stories of fights, assaults and homicides.

In Boston, 15-year-old Christopher Miles was killed after an argument stemming from a water-gun fight, and a woman told police she was sprayed by a high-powered water gun that had been loaded with bleach. The two incidents prompted Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn to ask retailers not to sell Super Soakers.

Other shootings over water-gun drenchings have occurred in New York and New Castle, Pa. In Michigan last Tuesday, a state legislator proposed a ban on high-powered water guns.

Larami expressed sympathy to the family of the slain Boston youth but said real guns, not water guns, were at fault.

"Like any other toy, including a rubber ball, it can be used for

destructive purposes for which it was not intended," the company said in a statement. "But we trust that the people who buy our product will use it as it was designed."

The incidents elsewhere seemed to have little impact on sales at Baltimore toy stores this week.

In Mondawmin Mall recently, Valerie Perkins hurried to grab one of the last two Super Soaker 200 guns at the Kay-Bee Toy & Hobby store. She had tried other stores but found only empty shelves or Super Soaker imitations.

The gun was a reward for Mrs. Perkins' 13-year-old son, Howard, who she said has performed well at school. She said she was mindful of the Boston incidents.

"This is restricted to backyard use only," she declared.

At the Kiddie City store in Randallstown, Jumoke Ajanku, 12, said he had lagged behind in the water arms race. He said he had tried in vain to match his now-obsolete water pistol against his friends' high-pressure water toys. But now he would reach parity with the Super Soaker 100 his grandmother was buying for him.

Susan King, Jumoke's grandmother, was a reluctant benefactor.

"When I was a young mother, water guns were out," said Mrs. King, a retired Baltimore school counselor. But she wanted to reward Jumoke and his 13-year-old brother, Salim, for their good behavior.

She said the boys' mother convinced her that the water guns would be OK. She felt more comfortable when she saw the bright colors that would make it impossible to mistake the toys for real weapons.

Older kids -- who might otherwise be called adults -- were buying Super Soakers for themselves.

Robert Jones, 26, of Northwest Baltimore was shopping for the best deal on a Super Soaker.

"All my nieces and nephews have it," he said. "It's hot, and it's something to do. You'll be cool when the water hits you."

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