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

Times Staff Writer

"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."

Snow hates this kind of talk. He cannot for a moment accept that he has become part of the give-and-take process. He feels compelled to continually remind each person he deals with that he is here on a mission and there can be no compromise.

"It's not me," he said, his voice rising, as it would so often on this day. "My daughter's dead. She used to bring me home notes like yours," he said, gesturing to a child's crayon drawings on the aide's bulletin boards. "Nobody knows what it's like who hasn't lost a child. I wake up miserable. I go to bed miserable, and it's going to happen to other people unless we do something. I'm here with my February house payment--that bought my airline ticket. I've spent $12,000 on this. My wife doesn't work. I only make $30,000 a year. I work for people who are ready to can me."

He paused. "Sometimes I hate the world we live in."

He left and found a phone booth, where he called a lobbyist for a national consumer group. He had memorized the phone number. He caught a cab. They had lunch. She, like the Senate aide, listened sympathetically. He was preaching to the converted. Yes, she agreed, the commission chairman, Terrence Scanlon, a Reagan appointee, is a staunch opponent of banning any product. Yes, the ban would have to come through Congress. She offered advice about political realities, alliances, probabilities, the cautionary tales that shape strategy.

Frustrated by Protocol

Snow sighed. He hates this kind of talk too. It gets in the way of what is right. Like the nonsense about ties. Before he left Riverside, Snow's wife, Linda, who has watched her husband's anguish with much patience, tried to persuade him to wear a red tie--a power tie, she called it. Snow hadn't heard the expression before. It amazed him.

"That's the thing about this crazy place," he said. "Everybody's worried about protocol, stepping on toes. Doesn't anybody care ? I wouldn't last 5 minutes in this place. I'd probably hit somebody in the mouth."

He dreaded the thought of coming back to Washington again. The roller-coaster effect--a bolstering remark here, a sign of defeat there--was horrible. You never knew where you stood. You were so starved for a break that you lived on nuances. It was not the real world.

"I'm starting to wear a little thin," he told the lobbyist, in whom he has confided frequently. "It's like being without water for two days and you get to the top of the hill and see an oasis and it turns out to be a mirage."

He caught a cab back to Congress for a chat with his congressman, Rep. Al McCandless (R-Riverside), whose administrative assistant, Signy Ellerton, first guided Snow through the maze that is Washington. Snow wanted to ask for McCandless' support, but he didn't expect much enthusiasm because of the conservative congressman's free-enterprise zeal.

Surprise. Ellerton walked into the office lobby and handed Snow a copy of a letter she had persuaded McCandless to write to the commission questioning how voluntary compliance could be expected to produce results. It all but supported a ban of lawn darts.

"This," she said, smiling, "has to be the most peculiar position Al McCandless has ever taken in his life."

Pleased, Snow caught another cab to the office of Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.). He didn't have time for the 10-minute walk. Inside, as in all House and Senate office buildings, there was a metal detector. It was very sensitive. So sensitive that after Snow removed his wallet, watch, coins and belt the detector still beeped. He removed one shoe and tried again. Unaccountably, that worked.

Dash for Elevator

He dashed for an elevator to Wilson's office. It closed. He caught another. He asked the secretary for Wilson's administrative assistant, Larry Goldzband, another ally. Goldzband came out. There was trouble, he said. Wilson was running late to a committee meeting. "You'll only have 2 minutes with him, so get ready," Goldzband said. Snow swallowed and tried to figure a quick way to ask Wilson to introduce a separate lawn dart bill. It was impossible.

Seconds later Wilson came through the door to the lobby. "I know what you want and I'll be glad to do it," he said quickly, with little expression on his face. "If the (overall consumer commission reform) bill isn't going anywhere, it makes sense to do this (lawn dart ban) separately. The (commission's) voluntary standards (approach) is bull--" and he was gone.

Snow, still standing, had yet to say anything but hello. Here he was, his adrenaline cresting, ready as always to explode, argue, defend--and it was over. He had the promise of his senator.

It was roller-coaster time again. Thirty little words and Snow, not much given to optimism these days, was suddenly saying things like, "I have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams." He needed this one. He needed insurance against the loss he expected at Wednesday's commission meeting.

"I know what they're going to do tomorrow, but I don't know how I'm going to deal with my anger," he said.

He steeled himself, but to no avail. No two worlds could be further apart than a grieving, exhausted father wanting instant justice and a regulatory body administered by people philosophically opposed to hamstringing the free market. No middle ground existed.

Purported Compromise

As soon as the meeting began, Commission Chairman Scanlon offered what he thought was a compromise. He introduced a motion to develop new standards for lawn darts, requiring that they be incapable of causing penetration wounds. "This would ban the lawn dart as we know it today," he said.

The trouble was that under the tedious regulatory process it could take as long as three years before those standards could take effect, staff members estimated.

Scanlon could not get the support of Commissioner Anne Graham, who wanted to initiate a ban and considered his approach too soft, or Commissioner Carol Dawson, who wanted more staff studies before she made up her mind. Graham, in turn, could not persuade Scanlon or Dawson to vote for a ban. Representatives of lawn dart importers have lobbied the commission, arguing that a ban is not justified, and the commission's attorney, James Lacy, has warned commissioners that they might lose if the lawn dart industry sued over a ban.

As a result, the commissioners settled on requiring lawn dart makers to improve the warning labels they put on packages, stepping up surveillance of the industry and seeking criminal prosecution of any company that violates regulations more than once.

"Manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers should, and will, get the message," Scanlon said.

Snow watched it all with his large hands clasped together. Tuesday's optimism was forgotten. A television reporter approached and asked him for comment.

'Can't Verbalize It'

"It sickens me," he said. "I can't verbalize it. They defer and defer--I'll never understand it. These darts killed my child. . . . I come here and it's like I came to a foreign planet. What happened today is an outrage."

He got into an elevator with congressional aide Ellerton. He felt, again, as if he had failed, as if nothing would ever change. He began to talk about Michelle's upcoming birthday.

"I wanted to be able to have given her something," he said.

"David," Ellerton said firmly with the unspoken desperation of one friend trying to get another to stop being so hard on himself, "you have ."

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