Opinion » The Rant

Overkill

Where does the our right to feel safe in public end? Depends on the product.

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Twelve-year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village, Illinois, died in 1982 after taking extra-strength Tylenol. Adam Janus, 27, a postal worker in another Chicago suburb, died the same day. Janus's brother and sister-in-law both died from cyanide poisoning within the next few days. All three had taken pills from the same Tylenol bottle. Three other poisoning deaths in the area were found to be linked to the over-the-counter pain reliever. Around 31 million bottles were pulled from shelves in supermarkets and drugstores all over the country as a precaution.

Working with authorities, Johnson & Johnson determined that the cyanide lacing had occurred after the pills left the factory. Some deranged Illinoisan apparently had taken bottles of Tylenol from store shelves, tainted them with potassium cyanide, and replaced them without being noticed. Johnson & Johnson developed the tamper-evident child-proof packaging that makes us cuss and flail when we're feeling weak. Congress passed and then-President Ronald Reagan signed the Federal Anti-Tampering Act in 1983.

When seven people died, a corporation in an industry with massive lobbying power put public safety over profit. The recall and subsequent relaunch cost Johnson & Johnson $100 million — all because one person did something sinister with their product.

Seven-year-old Michelle Snow didn't see the lawn dart sail over the fence before it impaled her skull. Her nine-year-old brother and some friends were playing in the backyard, where one of the boys overthrew the "Jart" that killed her in 1987. Lawn darts had been banned in the mid-1970s, after countless injuries to children, but the game's manufacturers had negotiated a compromise with the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Under their terms, lawn darts could be sold with a warning label that they were for adults only. They couldn't be sold in toy stores or near toy departments. Michelle's grieving father lobbied to have lawn darts removed from stores and banned from further sale.

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One child died, and 30 years later we wonder who thought throwing steel-tipped projectiles in the grass sounded like a fun time. Because a tepid warning label couldn't keep a deadly game out of the wrong hands.

Pseudoephedrine is the active ingredient in over-the-counter sinus medications, the stuff that just dries you right up when you have a cold. It also can be used as a chemical precursor in manufacturing meth. The Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 regulated sales of products containing pseudoephedrine. Retailers are required to keep the products behind the pharmacy counter or in a locked cabinet, and they must maintain a retrievable record of pseudoephedrine buyers for two years. If Memphis allergies are ruining your life (unlikely, I know) and you need Claritin-D, you have to show a verified proof of identity. Some people use products for uses other than the ones intended, so the rest of us have to submit our names to a registry when we buy decongestant.

Such is the cost of freedom. Some rights supercede others, so we compromise a little for the good of society. One person's individual liberty to puff cigarettes ends at another's right to breathe clean air, so cities restricted smoking in public places. A motor vehicle is a dangerous machine, so in order to enjoy the freedom to traverse public roads, a driver must demonstrate the ability to operate one, show the capacity to follow automotive laws, and must prove financial responsibility in case of an accident. These demands are not unreasonable.

Twelve moviegoers, 20 elementary schoolers and six of their teachers, 14 public health-care center employees, 49 nightclub revelers, 58 concert attendees, 26 parishioners, 17 high school students and teachers — and counting — have fallen to AR-15 gunfire since the assault weapons ban expired in 2004. Hundreds more have been injured. Each time, Congress has responded swiftly with thoughts and prayers. Gun manufacturers shrugged and quietly rejoiced. Their products worked exactly as advertised. The ability to enter a crowded place and quickly fill it with bullets and bodies is a feature, not a bug. Sales spiked as their loyal customers stocked up, fearing this would be the incident that sparked meaningful action. How long could a just society allow the bloodshed to continue unchecked?

Some rights supercede others. As it stands now, everyone's right to feel safe in public ends at another person's right to own and access a killing machine. That's who we are now.

Jen Clarke is a digital marketing specialist and an unapologetic Memphian.

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