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(NOTE FROM THE LEGAL DEPARTMENT: The activities described in this column are dangerous and stupid and possibly illegal and should be performed only by trained humor professionals who are good at sneaking around. This newspaper assumes no responsibility or liability for any injuries, deaths, maimings, cripplings, eyes getting poked out, pregnancies, fires, riots, ointments or suppositories that may or may not occur as a result of some moron attempting any of these activities or any other actions, forfeitures, debentures, indemnifications, and such other big scary legal words as we may or may not think up at some future point in time. Thank you.)

For more than a year now, alert readers have been sending me alarming newspaper articles about the "potato gun," a bazooka-size device that can shoot a potato several hundred yards at speeds up to 1,000 feet per second. To give you an idea of how fast that is, an ordinary potato, on its own, will rarely travel more than four feet per day, even during the height of mating season.

Potato guns - which have already been banned in some municipalities - can be easily made from plastic pipe available in any plumbing-supply store; the explosive force comes from ordinary hair spray, which is ignited by an electrical spark. Needless to say I will not provide any specific details concerning how to construct these devices, because a great many young people read this column, and they already know how to construct these devices.

Anyway, I recently got a fax from an individual whom I will identify here only as "Buzz Fleischman, 810 Pinecrest Drive, Miami Springs, FL 33166, telephone (305) 885-4817." Buzz, who makes his living performing humor at corporate meetings and other functions, and who by the way currently has some openings on his calendar, informed me that he had constructed a potato gun, and was willing to demonstrate it for the purpose of helping me, as a responsible adult, better understand just how alarming this menace is.

We decided to fire the potato gun from the roof of my place of employment, The Miami Herald (motto: "We Are Still Keeping an Eye on Gary Hart"). Let me stress that The Miami Herald is a responsible institution that does NOT ordinarily allow people to shoot potatoes from its premises. We were able to do it only because we met the very strict requirement of not asking for permission. It was a Covert Operation, during which we addressed each other only by code names except when we forgot. (For ease of memorization, we both used the code name "Eagle One.")

Once we got up on the Herald roof, we decided to fire the potato gun toward Biscayne Bay. Our other option was to fire it toward the city of Miami, which would have been a serious mistake because hundreds of local residents would undoubtedly have fired back (and not with potatoes, either).

To load the gun, Buzz stuffed a potato into the barrel and shoved it down with a pole, then sprayed some Aqua Net Super Hold hair spray into the detonation chamber. He then aimed the gun at the bay and pressed the ignition device, and FWOOOM, the potato came blasting out of the gun and went way way WAAAAY out over the water and landed approximately in Portugal.

As responsible adults, Buzz and I were very alarmed by this demonstration. We shot off a bunch more potatoes to see if we would continue to be alarmed, and we were. We also got excellent results with an onion.

But as any reputable scientistwill tell you, the "acid test" of the alarmingness of this type of device is what happens when you shoot a Barbie doll out of it. We used the "Gymnast Barbie" model, which comes with a little gold medal. First we loaded a potato into the gun, then we put Gymnast Barbie into the end of the barrel, with just her head and hairstyle sticking out. Then we pointed the potato gun straight up and FWOOOM up went Barbie, high in the sky, smiling perkily, waving her arms and legs gymnastically around inside a cloud of potato atoms before finally landing in a really unladylike pose.

Needless to say these results were extremely alarming. Because if the potato gun can be used to shoot Barbie dolls, then it is only a matter of time before some fiendish criminal mind thinks of using one to shoot a Kellogg's strawberry Pop-Tart. So we tried that, too. It was pretty disappointing. The gun made a noise like "phoo" and spat Pop-Tart fragments a short, non-alarming distance.

Nevertheless as concerned adults we all need to become wrought up about this menace. People should form organizations and write angry letters. Congress should hold hearings. The Clinton administration should announce a definite policy and then change it. Maybe the Warren Commission should get back together. Also the Defense Department should probably go on Red Alert, because any day now Portugal is going to start shooting back.