History

Free the Fireworks!

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

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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.