"I'm the first one to admit that the removal of super-powered water guns
from store shelves will not completely solve the violence we see in our streets," Azzolina said. "But I am convinced there is a thin line between a water-gun fight and the real thing."
Which prompted this question from Al Davis, executive vice president of the Philadelphia-based Larami Corp., maker of the Super Soaker: "Why doesn't he ban the sale of real guns?"
It's not an academic question. Just last month, Azzolina voted with his Republican colleagues to repeal the state's ban on Uzi-type semiautomatic guns. The repeal bill, which Gov. Florio has threatened to veto, is awaiting Senate action.
Azzolina said he saw no contradiction.
"Semiautomatic weapons are not in the hands of all kids and teenagers," he said. The water guns are a "mischief type of toy. They're two different issues, and they shouldn't be tied together."
Belmar Mayor Kenneth Pringle said dozens of people with Super Soakers harassed passersby in his town Sunday, contributing to the violence in which 28 people were arrested and about two dozen suffered minor injuries.
Azzolina said he had spoken to people caught in the middle of the riot who were terrified that water guns pointed in their direction might contain bleach or some other dangerous liquid.
Police around the country have reported violent incidents sparked by super squirters. Two people were wounded in New York last week when a man hit with a water gun returned fire with a handgun. A Willingboro girl was arrested Monday for pulling a knife on a boy who had soaked her brother. And on Tuesday, a 16- year-old Pottstown boy allegedly slashed another teenager with a knife after getting squirted.
Authorities also have linked the toys to accidents and near-misses involving startled drivers.
In response to the Boston shooting, Mayor Raymond Flynn persuaded some store owners to remove the guns from their shelves. But the Larami Corp., which has sold more than 10 million of the toys worldwide since 1990, said the problem had been blown out of proportion.
"It just seems to me that these people . . . can't stop some of the problems, so they want to build a fire and create a smoke screen," said Davis. "In lieu of people turning on fire hydrants and draining reservoirs, we're giving them a water toy that can get them just as wet."
Davis said no one had outlawed the Super Soakers, although Philadelphia has a little-known law outlawing all squirt guns.
Azzolina acknowledged his proposal might not be the best solution.
"My purpose is to open a forum for public debate on this issue and to raise the level of consciousness on this issue," he said. "It may very well be in the end that we won't ban them."