They live among you. They are your friends and neighbors. They act like law-abiding citizens, but they hide a dark secret.
"We make sure everyone knows this is an adult activity," says Bill McGrane, who spent last weekend binging on his forbidden passion.
They are rebels, scofflaws. They purchase, use, and sometimes home-build their own illegal items. They operate on the fringes of legality. They do so, brazenly, in their own backyards, sometimes right under the eyes of local law enforcement.
"I'm in a small town. I'm sure the police know that we do it," says Shane Davis, who also flouts his pastime on the Internet.
They claim they are doing nothing harmful, yet the object of their fascination has been illegal in the United States for 25 years. They invite friends and family to join them: an innocent call to share in the fun, or the first step down the road of temptation?
"We have six courts: no waiting," McGrane says.
These men lead normal lives. They have families and careers. But like hundreds of others around the country, they also do the unthinkable. They take part in America's Most Dangerous Game.
Davis and McGrane play lawn darts. And they don't care who knows.
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Love at First Jart. Davis began playing lawn darts, or "jarts" as they are also known, in 1991. He started the same way many young people of his era got hooked: He found a set in his parents' Ohio garage and began experimenting. He had no idea that he was messing with a banned substance.
He quickly grew into a habitual jart user. His backyards-and-buddies competition soon turned into a 64-player invitational tournament, one that runs once again this July. The event is usually limited to friends and friends of friends -- like a prohibition speakeasy, it helps to be vouched for -- but a few, like ESPN's Rick Reilly, have penetrated the inner circle. Reilly competed in Davis' tournament in 2005 and wrote about it in Sports From Hell. Since then, Davis' legend in the jart world has grown, and his tournament has gone (slightly) high tech. "We have lights set up for night jarts," he says.
McGrane began jarting at a local fire hall in the 1980s, before the ban. Underage and spurned from the horseshoe pits, he and his friends spent the summer playing lawn darts, their competition quickly growing into a small tournament. "They kicked us out right after that," McGrane says.
Undaunted, McGrane moved the tournament to his parents' yard. When the lawn darts became illegal in 1988, McGrane rushed to the local hardware store. "I bought out their entire stock," he said.
McGrane holds his tournament each Preakness weekend. "It makes the summer a little longer," he says. Only 45 people showed up to play in a chilly Pennsylvania drizzle last weekend, but McGrane will get more than 100 participants in good conditions. Like Davis, he tries to keep the circle of competitors somewhat small, but it can get away from him. "At the start of the day, I may only know half the people," he says.
Davis runs the closest thing there is to an official lawn dart website (www.jarts.com). McGrane sometimes jokingly refers to himself as the "executive subcommittee" of United States Lawn Darts Association, which exists in the way your office's World League of Fantasy Football exists. Davis and McGrane correspond with other enthusiasts around the country, including organizers of quasi-official, barely-legal tournaments in Washington and Colorado.
They are not exactly breaking the law. It's illegal to sell or import lawn darts in the United States, but not to play with them. But the hobby skirts the fringes of public approval and draws the ire of a still-active anti-jarts lobby. Davis admits that the controversy adds to the appeal. "The attention that we get because they are banned is kind of fun," he says.
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What Used to be Habits Now are Vices. Anyone who has ever played with a lawn dart -- I tossed my share as a child of the late '70s -- knows that it fell somewhere between the horseshoe and the junior archery set on the safety scale, trending toward the archery set. The bright colors made them appealing toys for kids. The plastic wings and light weight made them easy for young hands to toss long, wobbly distances. The heavy, somewhat-sharp metal tips landed with a pronounced thud and lodged themselves easily into soft surfaces. That's the bad part.
In 1987, David Snow's seven-year-old daughter died after being struck by an errant lawn dart. Snow began a public crusade to outlaw the game. Lawn darts had already been illegal in the United States, but a ruling in the late 1970s permitted their manufacture and sale as long as they were not marketed as toys. Snow's activism convinced lawmakers that there was no way to market a jart that would not make it enticing to youngsters. Lawn dart injury statistics were chilling: 6,100 emergency room visits in eight years, 81% of them involving children under 16. Lawn darts were outlawed in 1988, and owners were encouraged to destroy their sets.
Twenty-five years later, the lawn dart is not legally available anywhere: not in the sporting goods store with the pellet guns and Bowie knives, not behind the convenience store counter with the rolling papers, not in the Fireworks warehouse just across the state line, not even on eBay, which bans postings about lawn darts. Enthusiasts trade some through Craigslist, which has laxer lawn darts policies; Davis gets most of his through donations.
McGrane calls the situation "ludicrous … I can buy a gun, but I cannot buy a lawn dart."
To save e-mailers the time: There is no constitutional language regarding jarts. And the injuries and deaths to children are taken seriously by everyone, including jarts enthusiasts. But 390 children under 14 died in backyard pool incidents between 2009 and 2012, according to the Consumer Products Safety Commission. Balloons claim about three young lives per year though choking; tricycles and non-motored scooters about two each. Fireworks, legal in many states, caused four deaths and 9,600 emergency room visits in 2011. Childhood is fraught with danger. As a toy, the lawn dart is perilously unsafe. But as a game for grown-ups, stashed in the garage with the belt sanders, played on a wide expanse of backyard, jarts seem like a manageable risk.
Davis was approached about taking down his site years ago, but declined. Others have felt pressure. A supplier of lawn dart parts -- parts are still legal, in the same way opium poppy seeds are legal -- shut down his website. Internet rumors whisper of government crackdowns on jart caches or illicit sales operations. During our conversation McGrane jokingly asked me if I was with the Justice Department. Jarters post pictures on Facebook and tournament results on blogs, but they feel nervous doing so.
A new type of lawn dart is now available in toy stores. It has a light plastic tip. It barely flies, and sticks nowhere, making it no fun for kids or adults. But if you get your hands on some metal tips, which are still available to those willing to search … "Mangle it up a little, ream it out, and you can make a legitimate lawn dart," McGrane said.
Perhaps we have said too much.
* * *
Jarts: The Next Generation. Davis and McGrane now have their own private jart arsenals. "My wife's ready to kill me if I bring any more into the house," Davis says. McGrane boasts a collection of more than 30 sets. The winners of their tournaments earn small prizes, including a custom-made Jart trophy.
They are leading voices in an underground hobby, but they stop short of being leaders of a movement. When asked about a possible National Jarts Association, Davis says: "I would be up for that, but I wouldn't want to be the driver of that." McGrane is planning to retire to North Carolina, pass the Pennsylvania tournament to his adult children, perhaps visit the Colorado tournament, perhaps start a small new tradition in his new home. There will be no USLDA unless someone else is motivated to start one.
The lawn dart is about as relevant to younger generations as the Red Rider BB Gun: a relic from an era when children sometimes got wood burning kits and pocket knives as birthday presents. An informal survey of my neighborhood kids revealed that few had heard of lawn darts. Those that had thought of them as some kind of urban legend: a product that never existed, or one whose story has been exaggerated to Coke-and-Pop-Rocks levels.
The story of lawn darts and their prohibition is real, but it reads like a tall tale, one that can be interpreted both ways. Remember how retailers were crazy enough to sell metal-tipped projectiles to little kids? Or: Remember when the government went "nanny state" and outlawed a backyard game? Both those stories are fundamentally true, and the underlying dichotomy lives on. The neighborhood is a little safer without jarts flying around. Yet I can still buy all the BB guns I want.
"Maybe cooler heads will prevail," McGrane says. He and Davis don't want anyone to get hurt. They just enjoy a backyard sport more convenient than horseshoes (no pit necessary), more portable than beanbag toss, and downright fun when you get the knack for it.
It's a heck of an activity to have to whisper about. "The decriminalization of jarts," McGrone muses. "Wouldn't that be nice?"