Free the Fireworks!

Can individual citizens be trusted to celebrate Independence Day with a bang?


Outside of hardcore porn, is there any art form as static as a Fourth of July fireworks display? Once you've seen one, you've seen them all, yet year after year, like stoned zombies staring at screensavers, we tilt our heads to the sky and watch amateurs and professionals alike stage the pyrotechnical equivalents of gang bangs. If a dozen silver comets shooting across the heavens are spectacular, 100 are even better! And why not throw some crimson, gold, and turquoise into the mix too? Thus the spectrum expands, the explosions multiply, the choreography grows increasingly byzantine—but the basic plot remains unchanged.

So why are we so crazy about fireworks? In 1976, the year the United States celebrated its bicentennial, American patriots blew up 29 million pounds of fireworks. In 2006, the American Pyrotechnic Association reports, we exploded nearly 10 times that amount—in part, no doubt, because 10 times as many events have become fireworks appropriate. NFL games, casino openings, political conventions, weddings, and even a few funerals now get the sort of schlock-and-aww pageantry we once reserved for the Fourth.

Industry boosters typically attribute the growing popularity of fireworks to better safety standards and fewer regulations prohibiting their use. But the pyrotechnics still do injure people; 9,200 Americans required medical attention due to fireworks injuries in 2006, according to Consumer Product Safety Commission statistics. (In contrast, 220,500 people suffered toy-related injuries that year.) And in most states, regulation remains strong. While prosecution is mainly reserved for individuals caught selling products that exceed Washington's safety guidelines for "consumer fireworks"—e.g.,
M-80s, quarter sticks, and professional display fireworks that require a federal permit—penalties for much lesser offenses can be comically severe. In New York, for example, you can get three months in the slammer for possessing $50 worth of sparklers.

Thus, while fireworks may splatter the sky with every neon hue Chinese chemists can summon from strontium and copper chloride, they exist in a legal and moral gray zone. They're kind of safe and sort of permissible, but also sort of dangerous and kind of against the law. All of which, of course, makes them immensely appealing. They offer us a chance to engage in semi-illicit behavior without excessive risk of punishment or serious injury, at least until the NYPD makes zero sparkler tolerance its primary mandate.

If John Adams were alive today, he'd be issuing $500 fines for possessing sparklers too—but only because it would pain him to see us commemorating the Fourth in such timid fashion. In 1776 he exclaimed in a letter to his wife that the anniversary of America's independence "ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more."

In the decades that followed, Adams' countrymen readily embraced this edict—or at least the "guns, bells, bonfires" part of it. By the end of the 19th century, however, the social fallout from chaotic Independence Day celebrations began to coalesce into an anti-fireworks movement. In a 1904 letter to The New York Times, a physician lamented the Fourth as "a sad story of amputated little fingers, arms, or legs." In 1910 a Philadelphia rabbi called it "the annual day of slaughter of the innocents, the day of conflagrations, the day of compulsory self-exile, the day of agony for the sick and feeble." Newspapers ran stories about drunken mobs firing guns in the streets, shooting Roman candles into crowds, and attacking police officers.

Progressive advocacy groups such as the Playground Association of America, the Russell Sage Foundation, and the American Medical Association began to actively campaign for a "safe and sane" Fourth of July. "In 1903 the AMA began keeping a tally of people who were killed and injured by fireworks," says James R. Heintze, author of The Fourth of July Encyclopedia. "And out of that movement the legislation began to occur in a number of different cities."

In her 1989 book Glorious Fourth: An American Holiday, an American History, the historian Diana K. Appelbaum writes that the AMA reported 4,543 fireworks-related deaths from 1903 to 1910. Cleveland, Chicago, and other major cities started banning the private use of fireworks and offering "safe and sane" celebrations that included parades, pageants, and the sort of large public fireworks displays that remain popular today, in the place of unregulated displays of spontaneously combusting patriotism. Individual citizens could no longer be trusted to celebrate the roles independence and liberty played in their lives.

But some Americans will give up their sparklers only when you peel them from their cold, dead, occasionally fingerless hands. Today, fireworks that meet a set of requirements established by the Consumer Product Safety Commission are legal at the federal level, but in states and municipalities where they're regulated more stringently, the locals simply devise ways to get around the law. In Wisconsin individuals aren't allowed to buy fireworks. Organizations can, but only after obtaining a permit issued by a local government official.

Some communities allow retailers to sell permits directly to their customers, however, as long as they promise to pass along the fees they collect. Because individuals aren't allowed to purchase fireworks even with a permit, the retailers establish "user associations" that consist entirely of their customers. The customer buys his stockpile of fireworks, buys a permit, joins the association, and in one seamless transaction is transformed from a guy who'd like to set off some pinwheels in his backyard into an officially sanctioned community organization.

No doubt such ingenuity is as much a testament to the American spirit as the 16-shot "Untamed Retribution" aerial repeater, which comes in a package emblazoned with a bald eagle whose menacing, belligerent glare suggests little tolerance for namby-pamby expressions of patriotism like smoke pots and pie-eating contests.

But should the people of Wisconsin have to resort to such elaborate workarounds just to get their hands on some neutered, prettified sky bombs that even a pacifist floral arranger could love? In the eyes of John Adams, celebrating the nation's birthday in noisy, incendiary fashion wasn't just a right; it was a duty! To fulfill that duty in Wisconsin, alas, you have to behave like a Soviet Union bureaucrat trying to wangle himself a few extra vodka coupons.

In the first decade of the 20th century, when as many as 600 citizens were dying from fireworks injuries each year, such regulations may have been easier to tolerate. From 1988 to 2004, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. averaged approximately 6.4 fireworks-related deaths per year. According to the American Pyrotechnical Association, the number of injuries per 100,000 pounds of fireworks dropped 91 percent from 1976 to 2006. Meanwhile, with professional outfits like Fireworks by Grucci and Pyro Spectaculars by Souza producing massive fireworks blitzkriegs in honor of nothing more than halftime, it's only natural, in the age of YouTube, Home Depot, and all the other manifestations of do-it-yourself culture, for individual Americans to believe they have the right to emulate such efforts, especially on the one day of the year when we're ostensibly celebrating our status as citizens of the freest nation in the history of the world.

Thus, as with porn, the escalatory nature of fireworks isn't just an aesthetic phenomenon but a political one. Just as we test the boundaries of our freedom by pushing from Playboy to Hustler to Little Red Rides the Hood #2, we do the same by pushing from firecrackers to cherry bombs to items with names like Mineshell Mayhem and Live Free or Die. Blowing up huge caches of fireworks doesn't just celebrate our freedom; it certifies it—a patriotic act our Founding Fathers would have readily endorsed.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer in San Francisco.

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  1. Note to organizers of small-town municipal fireworks shows:

    You will have a pathetic display, because you don’t have much money, and so you try to stretch out the show with sporadic booms. As a result, unless your goal was “long and boring,” you’ve failed.

    Instead, you should try one or two “warning shots,” to get everyone looking in the same direction, and then light off every single firework you have, all at once.

    Sure, it’ll be short, but… yay!

  2. Fireworks are dangerous, that is why they are illegal. They are unsafe for children to play with. America is a free country and that includes the freedom not to be harmed ban dangerous illegal fireworks. The purveyors of illegal fireworks and those that possess them need to be rounded up by the police for some good ‘ole fashioned SEVERE PUNISHMENT.


  3. By “harmed ban dangerous illegal” I meant
    “harmed by dangerous illegal”


  4. Nothing beats Disneyland’s fireworks. I spent a couple of weeks there a few months back on business, and stayed at a hotel across the street. The fireworks display has been significantly upgraded since I was a kid.

  5. I would like to live in a country where we could celebrate the 4th of July with sub kiloton nukes…

  6. Juanita, my lovely Juanita,

    Lets take a walk down the road
    The road i’ve been up and down
    No ones ever even there
    Just old feelings i have found

    But in my dreams
    When i close my eyes at night
    Its you i see
    Your image comes in sight

    And I…

    Lose my breath
    I stop and stare
    You kiss my lips
    I’m left without a care

    I wish it was real
    I love the way i feel

  7. In Michigan you have to drive to Ohio to get decent fireworks for your backyard Independence Day celebration. Friggin’ firecrackers are illegal here.

    The amount of cash that leaves the state has to be substantial. Like drugs and prostitution, the war on fireworks is a complete failure and makes criminals out of good, normally law abiding citizens.


  8. Can individual citizens be trusted to celebrate Independence Day with a bang?


    We can’t be trusted to smoke, eat right, decide what to put in our bodies, or own a firearm for self defense, the answer is no no no.


    Next discussion.

  9. I’m an anarcho-capitalist but still think it’s worth taking seriously how many people — particularly children — are routinely blinded by fireworks, as noted in this article by an eye doctor today on a blog I edit:


    As with smoking, I think we might be wiser, rhetorically, to take a “This warrants finding non-coercive means of discouraging people” approach as opposed to a simple, dismissive, “Aw, where’s the harm?” approach.

    (As for me, I’ll celebrate by seeing the Feelies and Sonic Youth in concert near the Statue of Liberty, but that’s a whole separate conservative/punk issue.)

  10. Can individual citizens be trusted to celebrate Independence Day with a bang?

    That depends upon the individual citizen.

    Trustworthiness is not something that can be possessed/attributed to groups.

  11. Outside of hardcore porn, is there any art form as static as a Fourth of July fireworks display?

    Stupidest opening sentence ever. Both porn and fireworks have benefited from technical progress. Compared to twenty years ago, there’s no comparison.

  12. As for me, I’ll celebrate by seeing the Feelies and Sonic Youth in concert near the Statue of Liberty, but that’s a whole separate conservative/punk issue.)

    You know society is doomed to a sterile, harm-free, risk-free, tepid tap water and whole-wheat bread existence when you can mix precautionary principle re:fireworks and a Sonic Youth concert without any irony whatsoever.

    Trustworthiness is not something that can be possessed/attributed to groups.

    Wow, how true. I couldn’t agree more.

    *compiles long list of laws and regulations that can be repealed in the face of this truth*

  13. I klopve dshooptuing poffg dfioerqworlks!@

  14. Note to organizers of small-town municipal fireworks shows: You will have a pathetic display

    .. I beg to differ ..

    .. stop by Jemez Springs New Mexico on some fourth sometime … the local VFW collects for the show all year long and it lights the sky for at least half an hour ..

    .. no charge, just come to the park and enjoy .. oh, and afterwards, please pack out your trash ..

    .. The Jemez Hobbit

  15. Apparently if you do it in the woods here in Arizona you might burn down half the state.

    Though that does make for interesting cloud formations in the distance, and nice sunsets.

  16. Not sure about the States, but 99% of the available fireworks up here in the GWN simply SUCK. Whay people still insist on buying these useless pieces of crap is beyond me. Are there dangers? Sure, they’re explosives for Christ’s sake, albeit weak-ass ones. But what bugs me the most is the idiots firing them off the night before, and for three days afterwards. Give it a rest, already. And an early Happy Independence Day to my friends below the 49th.

  17. Apparently if you do it in the woods here in Arizona you might burn down half the state.

    ….there are forests in Arid-zone?

  18. Yes.

  19. Here in Beijing they take their fireworks seriously. I moved here last year from Los Angeles, where you can still barely buy cigarettes let alone set off fireworks. During Chinese New Year in February you can set off fireworks in the city for two weeks. The fireworks you can buy here kick the crap out of anything I was ever able to buy in the US, even in places like Texas where fireworks are mostly legal.

    You just walk out in the middle of the street and set them off. Cars go driving right past them. The explosions bounce off the windows of buildings. I live on the 25th floor and someone was setting off fireworks at the base of my building, so the explosions were taking place right outside my living room window. The noise is deafening, it sounds like the city is being bombed. It’s something you can’t appreciate until you experience it.

    It’s worth noting, too, that for the other 50 weeks of the year it is perfectly legal to go outside the city limits and set off any fireworks you like for any reason you like. You can buy fireworks there year-round.

    The Chinese are willing to put up with burns and lost fingers for the cause of celebration. If you really want to celebrate America’s founding in the manner if was meant to be celebrated, just come to China. On the Fourth of July I’ll be outside the Beijing city limits, celebrating my inalienable right as an American to blow things up for my own amusement.

    (I’ve got videos of Chinese New Year fireworks posted on YouTube if anyone cares to check them out.)

  20. leeinchina,
    Tell us about your experience with women in China.

  21. I remember after the Oakland fires they banned the fireworks, even though fireworks were not responsible for it. It was actually a burning cigarette which could have been prevented with better technology, but nothing like ruining people’s fun when you can…

  22. “Tell us about your experience with women in China.”

    Batshit crazy lunatics, every last one of them.

  23. New Mexico has forests and they are tinder-dry at this time of the year. We’ve already had one of our mountain towns evacuated and people are just now starting to move back in – if there’s anything left. So out here, the fireworks ban makes perfect sense. We’re a desert, people. And our firefighters are already stretched pretty thin.

  24. As a kid in the 80s I remember going with my father to Little Italy in NYC to pick up the annual cache. There would be a guy walking around mumbling “fireworks fireworks” who would give you a little order card just like at the sushi bar. You then walked around the street and they would swap a paper bag for a handful of cash, and interestingly we were never once shorted though doing so would seem to be a low-risk, high-gain proposition. Perhaps the low-low-low level mobsters assigned to that racket felt it would have been sacrilegious to skim 4th of July fireworks off a suburban dad and his kid. Giuliani put an end to that along with just about everything else. At least he helped put an end to the everything else along with it.

    Just wear some safety goggles or better yet, shooting glasses when setting anything off. We also used one of those pincers used to grab cans off of shelves when lighting bigger stuff like M80s or blockbusters. The more you legalize this stuff, the more likely you are to get reasonable quality control with regards to things like fuses. You haven’t really experienced terror until you’ve lit the fuse on aa cherry bomb in your hand and found the fuse to be a little on the fast side.

  25. If trust were at the root of every issue, government would be outlawed. I love a good paradox . . .

  26. We also used one of those pincers used to grab cans off of shelves when lighting bigger stuff like M80s or blockbusters.

    Extremely bad idea — lightweight metal object in contact with lit salute. Just lay the damn thing down on soft ground or very firm surface in such a way that you can get a flame under the fuse & light it. Of course the better way is to hang it off the ground, but I don’t even do that myself with my triangle salutes; I would do that if I made or shot bigger salutes, or at an organized shoot.

    Just to spell it out, if you’re afraid of premature ignition, a piece of metal extension tongs blown off is more likely to kill you than a piece of your hand blown off would be.

    Note to organizers of small-town municipal fireworks shows:

    You will have a pathetic display, because you don’t have much money, and so you try to stretch out the show with sporadic booms. As a result, unless your goal was “long and boring,” you’ve failed.

    Instead, you should try one or two “warning shots,” to get everyone looking in the same direction, and then light off every single firework you have, all at once.

    Sure, it’ll be short, but… yay!

    There are too many yahoos with your attitude toward display fireworks. I like to appreciate each shell individually, with a little sky darkness in between.

    And I bet you’re totally impatient with ground works (set pieces).

    You don’t really appreciate good fireworks until you learn to make them, but you can become something of an aficionado even as a spectator if you just look at it as a kind of performing art.

  27. Echoing an earlier commenter, FWs in the hands of inebriated citizens were more or less banned in most Canadian locales several decades ago. But somehow not in Victoria.

    So for a week before and after Halloween, and often around other holidays, wife-beating idiots would light their FWs in their backyards, scaring pets, injuring people, and causing property damage. It was like living in Beirut.

    Enough people complained that finally, last year, FWs were banned. The Canada Day holiday was blissfully quiet. Except for the beautiful FWs display from the legislature, handled by licensed pyrotechnical experts.

  28. If you really believe that the 10 fold increase in usage of fireworks is anyway related to celebrating our independence the way our founding fathers envisioned then explain how it is that the fireworks lobby’s mass amounts of spending is required to loosen the states laws so they can sell more and ship more of our cash over to China.

    It’s ridiculously ironic that we celebrate our independence by shipping hundreds of millions of American dollars over to a communist led country. It’s bad enough that we have to buy just about all of our basic needs from them, but giving them the party money too borders on insanity. I think I’ll put 50 $1 dollar bills on a stick and set them on fire – at least that way I still get fire and smoke and my moola doesn’t end up somewhere that doesn’t appreciate what independence really means.

  29. Here in Santa Cruz, the local area has been traumatized by wildfire after wildfire, so setting off fireworks has, at least temporarily, become seen as extremely anti-social behavior. The next-door town of Scotts Valley canceled their annual show, citing dry conditions and fire risk. The nearby town of Watsonville, which is normally the only place in the county where one can legally purchase safe-and-sane fireworks, banned the sale of such items in deference to the sensibilities of local fire victims, and the safety of firefighters. Police and Sheriff representatives promised severe crackdowns on fireworks, including thousand-dollar fines. They closed streets and freeway exits, restricted access to the beaches, and practically strip-searched anyone going to or coming from the beaches. Very heavy-handed authoritarian shtick.

    My family and I went down to the Wharf for the 4th. We listened to a free concert (Rare Earth) at the Boardwalk, ate dinner at a restaurant on the wharf, and then went outside to the railing just after sunset. As last year, or any other July 4th spent at the Wharf, we were treated to the “People’s Fireworks Show”: A truly amazing display of professional-grade fireworks all along the Monterey Bay, from Santa Cruz in the North down to Moss Landing and further in the South, all performed and paid for by private individuals. (The fog had settled on Monterey, where a city fireworks show was alleged to be going on, but we couldn’t make out much, if any, of that. A commercial display at a quarry in Aromas was visible, however.) My wife and I were mesmerized. We saw very few cops, and nobody engaged in actual enforcement of the fireworks laws on the main beach, despite clear evidence that people were setting off huge charges there. (We heard later that the most jackbooted “enforcement” seemed to be happening in the Aptos/Sea Cliff area. Perhaps that is where John Law chose to make his stand.)

    In the papers the next morning, I saw no acknowledgment of this massive example of civil disobedience, except the declaration of “victory” by police, and a somewhat more honest expression by fire-fighters that we “got lucky” that there had been no fires or major injuries on this July Fourth. Poor reporting? Editorial bias? Censorship? Who knows? Anyway, if anyone thought that the weekend wouldn’t start out with a bang in Santa Cruz, because of social pressure or government edict, they were mistaken. And if they thought that the deployment of professional fireworks by non-professions would necessarily cause injury and destruction, they were likewise mistaken.

    Not that things couldn’t have turned out badly. Sooner or later, something bad will happen: that’s just the nature of working with explosives. But every year that the “People’s Fireworks” show happens in Santa Cruz with no noteworthy problems, I have to wonder why the City, which bans sales and use of all fireworks, but claims poverty when asked to put on a “professional” show once or twice a year, can’t find a way to work with the citizens who obviously are happy to expend their own resources and assume their own risk to participate in this yearly, ritual rebuke of authority.

  30. “non-professions” should have been “non-professionals” of course.

  31. I lost my son on the 4th from a homemade cannon. He was an innocent bystander! Freedom, yes, stupidity, Hang them high, as it was then !!!!!!!

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