Those looking to celebrate America by blowing up a small piece of it this Fourth of July will want to take an extra close look at their state's fireworks regulations. At the federal level, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission sets some basic standards about how long (or short) fuses can be, what kinds of chemicals can be used, how much external flame they can produce, etc. But from there, it is a bit of a free-for-all.
In Wisconsin you can buy fireworks year-round, whereas Oregon asks that you save your explosive purchases for the weeks leading up to Independence Day. In Alabama you can procure fireworks to celebrate your sweet 16, while in New Hampshire you have to wait until you're old enough to buy booze. (Yep, 19- and 20-year-olds are considered too irresponsible.)
Free-living Alaska has no state-level restrictions, meaning everything from M80s to Catherine Wheels are up for grabs. But other places, including Illinois and Vermont, permit only sparklers, snakes, and similar "novelty items." Most states fall somewhere in between, though Delaware and Massachusetts prohibit all consumer fireworks outright. And some places have truly bizarre regulations on the books.
Ohio will allow the sale of most any type of firework but requires the purchaser to sign an affidavit promising to take his or her loot out of state within 48 hours.
Until recently, Pennsylvania allowed the sale of most fireworks 365 days a year—but only to people who could show out-of-state identification. This setup denied Keystone residents their firework freedoms while implicitly undermining similar prohibitions in bordering states.
Then there's Florida, which forbids the sale of fireworks for recreational use but allows them for pest-control purposes. "With all the stand-alone fireworks-only superstores in the state of Florida, there shouldn't be a critter left alive," says Julie Heckman of the American Pyrotechnics Association, a trade group.
The Florida rule, she says, is emblematic of a "look the other way" approach to fireworks regulation. "It's kind of wink-and-nod enforcement. We don't support it, but we'll allow it."
In the past few years, Heckman adds, there's finally been a shift toward authorizing the underground fireworks usage that has long occurred without states' permission. Since 2011, Kentucky, West Virginia, Michigan, and several other governments allowed the full range of fireworks that were already legal at the federal level. New Jersey and New York took more cautious steps, abolishing their prohibitions on consumer combustibles but only going so far as to legalize handheld novelties.
For many families, this means more exciting and colorful Independence Day celebrations. But Heckman explains that it can also reduce deaths and injuries from fireworks.
"In the areas that have a prohibition or a restriction, we tend to find the injuries and the fires are higher than where they are legally permissible," she says. "Individuals are choosing to break the law and are trying to get away with that activity very, very quickly. They don't think out where they should put their family and spectators. They don't think about making certain there's no dry debris or clearance from the house or other buildings."
Deaths from fireworks are mercifully rare. An average of seven people die annually from "non-occupational" fireworks use, although this number varies considerably from year to year: 2015 was exceptionally deadly, with 11 people losing their lives to firework-related injuries; 2016, meanwhile, saw only four deaths, and one occurred while the victim was attempting to manufacture his own illegal fireworks.
A little over three people per 100,000 suffer a firework-related wound each year. That rate has remained steady despite a massive increase in the number of fireworks in use: 29 million pounds of product was sold in 1976, compared to over 268 million pounds in 2016.
Fireworks, then, are no different from any other good demanded by consenting individuals. They are most dangerous when prohibited, largely because of how prohibition influences consumer behavior. Lawmakers in more restrictive states should take notice and let their citizens blow up whatever they want—for safety's sake.