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Sorting Out The Sparks: The Complexity Of Fireworks Laws


The Fourth of July was a few days ago now, but many Americans may be carrying the festivities into the weekend by setting off belated displays of fireworks.

JAMES LYNN: Like Pyromaniac or the Arsenal or Thunderbuster.

SHEIR: That's James Lynn. We caught up with him last week at a roadside fireworks stand in Washington, D.C., a few blocks from the Maryland border. Lynn has been selling fireworks here for more than 20 years.

LYNN: Yeah. We offer the largest selection of Class C fireworks in the city. If it's legal, we sell it.

SHEIR: But knowing what is legal can be tricky. Lynn and other fireworks vendors need to stay on top of local laws.

LYNN: They change every year. Every firework has to be inspected. And some years, they pulled certain fireworks. We don't have the same ones every year. And every year, we get a couple new ones. Like, the Purple Rain is actually our only new one we have this year.

SHEIR: Even though Lynn says he respects the local regulations, he doesn't always know that his customers will, especially since he peddles his wares so close to the state border.

LYNN: People come from Maryland to buy fireworks because they can't buy fireworks there. But, you know, they're supposed to shoot off in D.C. You know, you're really not supposed to take them elsewhere.

SHEIR: So you really have no way of knowing what your customers are going to do once they make their purchase, do you?

LYNN: No, no. It's not our job what they do in their private home.

SHEIR: Enforcing fireworks laws is hard enough. But keeping track of those laws - and there are many of them, varying state by state - that can ignite more than a little confusion. And that's where someone like Julie Heckman comes in. I recently sat down with the director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, a trade association for the fireworks industry.

JULIE HECKMAN: Our members include manufacturers, importers, distributors, wholesalers, retailers and professional display companies.

SHEIR: So I want to address some of the specific laws that certain states have on the books when it comes to the sale of fireworks. For instance, Ohio, I understand, has a type of law where you can buy fireworks but only if you are leaving the state with them in a certain period of time. Am I getting that correct?

HECKMAN: That's correct. Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida kind of have the three oddest sets of regulations, if you will. You have to sign a waiver that indicates you are taking that product out of the state within 48 hours.

SHEIR: And talk about Florida. Florida is fascinating when it comes to their fireworks laws.

HECKMAN: The Florida law just makes me laugh because it is the most bizarre. Florida only allows the sale of consumer fireworks for pest control purposes. There shouldn't be a critter left in the state of Florida. I mean, people are really enjoying their fireworks down there.

SHEIR: How is that enforced? You just give them your word when you're buying that this - I will be using this for bugs.

HECKMAN: Right. You sign a statement that says: I am purchasing this for pest control purposes.

SHEIR: So it's honor code.

HECKMAN: Honor code.

SHEIR: Are there states that ban fireworks altogether?

HECKMAN: Well, currently, there are four states that still have their longstanding prohibitions: New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Massachusetts.

SHEIR: I understand the push lately has been to deregulate the sale and use of fireworks. What is driving that trend?

HECKMAN: With the tough economy, we started seeing states recognize that people were crossing the state lines and they were purchasing fireworks and they were bringing them back and they were missing out on the tax revenue.

SHEIR: At the end of the day, though, Julie, fireworks are still dangerous. We're talking about fire, we're talking about lighting fuses. So how do you argue for more relaxed fireworks laws when there is a public safety issue involved?

HECKMAN: Well, first of all, fireworks are safe when they are used properly. With the increased growth in consumer fireworks use, we've actually experienced a sharp decline in both the number of firework-related injuries as well as the number of fires.

SHEIR: Nevertheless, this past Fourth of July brought with it some tragic events. In California, at least 28 people were injured when a public display of fireworks went awry. Captain Mike Lindbery of the Ventura County Fire Department was on the scene.

MIKE LINDBERY: Unfortunately, we're dealing with some explosive, high-energy pyrotechnic devices here. And so, you know, there is always that potential.

SHEIR: The American Pyrotechnic Association responded with the following statement, quote, "We are obviously concerned as we hate to see any fireworks display end with spectator injuries. We will not know the exact cause of the accident, but it appears to be a product malfunction in the mortar rack. Once the investigation is completed, industry will review the findings to determine if additional safety measures need to be followed." Even after this incident, Captain Lindbery prefers people not light their own fireworks.

LINDBERY: We always recommend that people in the area witness professionally produced fireworks, and we'd still stick by that recommendation.

SHEIR: And if you're still hanging onto some Fourth of July leftovers, he's talking to you.


SHEIR: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.