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At least we are safe from worm probes

Watchdogs of the federal government have again pulled us back from the brink of disaster, reining in a dangerous piece of technology that was outracing man's ability to control it.

For the indefinite future, probably until someone solves the deadly riddle and ends the threat to humanity posed by electronic "worm probes," the Consumer Product Safety Commission has outlawed the "Worm Getter" and ordered the recall of 83,000 of the devices.

The commission action was said to be consistent with the continuing obligation of Congress and the federal government to protect Americans from what are described as "dangerous products."

The family of worm probes, in which the "Worm Getter" is a new brand, all work on the idea that an electrical charge sent into the ground will bring worms to the surface.

The march of science that produced the worm probes was a service to fishermen, many of them interested in avoiding the backbreak of spading up the yard to collect earthworms for bait.

Effective as they may be in rendering worms ready and waiting for the baitbox, the scientific downside of the electronic worm probes summoned the federal government to protect its citizens from "dangerous products."

There's the prospect, it's reported, that the devices not only stun worms but will occasionally electrocute the human worm-probe users, especially those who may be standing on wet ground or touching exposed metal while the probe is stuck in the ground with the juice turned on.

In the announcement of the commission action statistics were submitted _ but without significant details _ in which it was said that 30 Americans had been killed by various types of worm probes in the past 20 years.

In a purely unofficial estimate, that toll of 1.5 deaths per year from worm probes is probably about the same as the number of Americans killed each year in hula-hoop accidents and maybe a shade lower than the number of Americans killed annually by falling pianos.

But it's obviously serious business, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission didn't just wake up to the danger of the worm probes and the killing of 1.5 Americans every year for the past 20 years.

The recall of the 83,000 "Worm Getters" followed the recall of several other brands of worm probes previously outlawed. Actually, officials for the commission acknowledged, there've been no deaths attributed to the "Worm Getter" but the known death rate in worm-probe accidents made it necessary to ban the "Worm Getter" along with all the others.

Ken Giles, a spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, was quoted as suggesting that some day a safe worm probe might be produced. But, he said, the agency knows of no such device yet built.

It's comforting, of course, that the commission, acting within the laws passed by Congress, has stepped in to protect all Americans from worm probes. It's also another illustration of the wild turn of logic in American government and the American political system.

Action authorized by Congress has been taken against a product regarded as a dangerous threat to all Americans because 30 people have been killed in 20 years, a rate of 1.5 deaths a year.

In that same time, an estimated 480,000 Americans have been killed by handguns, a death rate of about 24,000 a year, while Congress has bowed to a well-financed national lobby of gun nuts and has done nothing to enact adequate gun-control legislation.

It is a tragedy of misgovernment that the nation's legislative branch _ with a historic nod of approval from recent occupants of the White House _ can tend to the dangers of worm probes and ignore the flood of weapons that threatens every home and family in the nation.

The outlawing of worm probes while most elected officials of the federal government maintain an indifference to the handgun slaughter is useful in one way: It proves yet another time the contempt with which most of those officials regard the Americans who elect them and pay for their keep.

Leonard E. Larsen writes commentaries for Scripps Howard News Service.