Stateline Story

Fireworks, Public Safety Uneasy Bedfellows

  • July 03, 2001
  • By Jason White

Many state borders look different around the Fourth of July. Colorful signs spring up as border towns and back roads become convenient locations for fireworks vendors to set up shop. The reason? State fireworks laws are as spotty as one's vision after a shimmering fireworks show, and open borders permit a free flow of pyrotechnics from states where fireworks are legal to ones where they are not.

For most of the year, there's little to distinguish one state border from another.

Travelers on major roads might be greeted with a sign announcing the state name. Perhaps a smiling picture of the governor will be there as well. Or maybe a warning about seatbelt or gun laws. But that's about it. On smaller roads, most people would be hard pressed to figure out whether a state line has been crossed. Rare is the sign on a back road saying: "Welcome to our state."

But many state borders look quite different around the Fourth of July. Colorful signs spring up as border towns and back roads become convenient locations for fireworks vendors to set up shop. The reason? State fireworks laws are as spotty as one's vision after a shimmering fireworks show, and open borders permit a free flow of pyrotechnics from states where fireworks are legal to ones where they are not.

"Fireworks regulation is kind of a patchwork quilt," says Jeanne Mejeur, research manager at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "There is not consistent regulation of fireworks around the states."

At present, only nine states -- Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont -- completely ban consumer fireworks, allowing only professional displays. This is down from the height of state fireworks regulation in the 1970's, when more than twenty states banned all consumer fireworks, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association, an industry group.

The rest of the states allow for some or all kinds of fireworks that are legal under federal law, which has banned the largest of explosives since 1966. (For a complete breakdown of state fireworks regulations, click on http://www.americanpyro.com)

In many of the states with the most open fireworks regulations, border towns become bustling centers of pyrotechnics commerce around the nation's Independence Day. Buyers come from near and far, from states where fireworks are legal and states where they are not. Indian reservations are also popular places to buy and sell fireworks.

"There'll be huge stores right across the state line," says John Oxendine, the commissioner of Insurance and Fire in Georgia, a state that has banned almost all fireworks since 1955. "The reason they're there is people coming across the state line."

During the 30-day selling season typical of most states, many a sleepy street trades the quaint for the gaudy as roadside vendors hawk their wares out of colorful, makeshift stands. Meanwhile, vendors in states such as South Carolina and Tennessee, where fireworks have been legal for decades, can be found in well-established superstores. But in every state, much to the chagrin of public officials and the fireworks industry, small entrepreneurs sell their homemade and often illegal fireworks out of the backs of cars and trucks.

All of this causes much consternation for the fire and safety officials charged with fireworks oversight and public safety. They see the hospital and fire statistics. They know that the beauty and grandeur of fireworks masks an ugly reality -- the thousands of injuries, including lost hands, eyes and even lives, and the countless fires that accompany the misuse of legal fireworks and the casual use of illegal ones.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported 11,000 fireworks-related injuries last year, with children under 15 involved in 45 percent of those accidents. That's up from 8,500 injuries in 1999. The CPSC attributes the increase to last January's millennium celebrations.

Enforcing their laws is a daunting challenge for the public safety officials in the nine states that ban all consumer fireworks. Short of setting up roadblocks there's little they can do to stop the flood of fireworks that flows into their states every year. A few big dealers get busted. But most slip through their nets.

"People are always trying to bring fireworks in the state to sell them," says Florence Sinow, public information officer for the Department of Public Safety in Connecticut, where all fireworks except sparklers are illegal. This has led many officials to supplement their law enforcement efforts with public education about the safe use of fireworks.

The chief message they push is leave the fireworks to the professionals. This sentiment was echoed by Ann Brown, chairman of the CPSC, at a press conference last Wednesday: "Detonating these devices is best left to the professionals, because even fireworks that seem innocent can cause serious injury. For example, sparklers, that are often used by young children, burn at temperatures of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit."

To drive this message home, the CPSC demonstrated the damaging effects of some fireworks. The commission blew-off the hand of a mannequin with an M-80 (banned by federal law since 1966), blew-up three watermelons with some M-1000's (also banned), obliterated a young-looking mannequin with a typical homemade firework and lit a dress on fire with a sparkler.

But this annual event, staged every year just before the July 4 holiday, does not appear to have dampened America's taste for fireworks. Sales have doubled over the past ten years, reaching nearly $610 million last year, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association. And they show no sign of slowing down anytime soon.

America's taste for fireworks around the 4th of July holiday is not without historical precedent. Writing to his wife on July 3, 1776, after the Continental Congress decided to proclaim the American colonies independent of England, John Adams remarked on the ways in which America's day of independence would likely be remembered.

"I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival," Adams wrote. "It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade. . . .bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this day forward forevermore."