Want to Reduce the Danger of Illegal Fireworks? Legalize Them.

Prohibitions drive hazardous activities underground, which makes them more risky.


A good rule of thumb is that there's no activity so dangerous that authorities can't make it worse by restricting it and driving it underground. Last week, the Los Angeles Police Department demonstrated that point when it stole tons of illegal fireworks from a black market vendor, set aside a small proportion for on-site detonation, and promptly blew up the neighborhood and injured 17 people. As the cherry on top, the guy who had (precariously) stored the fireworks without incident until police showed up and fumbled the job is the one facing federal charges from the embarrassed authorities.

"What was supposed to be a safe operation to destroy a cache of illegal fireworks turned into a 'total, catastrophic failure' of a Los Angeles police bomb squad vehicle that resulted in a massive explosion in South L.A., rocking a neighborhood and injuring 17 people, including 10 law enforcement officers," KABC reported of the June 30 incident.

The explosion occurred after police arrived at the home of Arturo Ceja III in response to a complaint that he had illegal fireworks—initially reported as 5,000 pounds, but later revised upwards to 32,000 pounds—stored in his backyard. The fireworks, "including aerial displays and large homemade fireworks containing explosive materials" according to the United States Attorney's Office for the Central District of California, were reportedly purchased in Nevada for resale in California.

It's possible—even likely—that neighbors dropped a dime on Ceja out of concern that tons of homemade fireworks stacked on his back patio threatened a spectacular but extremely unfortunate Independence Day display. Instead, dangerous consequences had to await the arrival of the authorities. Things didn't go as planned when the LAPD decided to detonate "improvised explosive devices"—some of the homemade fireworks described by the U.S. Attorney's office.

"Following established protocols, they then transferred that material into a total containment vehicle," LAPD Chief Michael Moore described in a June 30 press conference. "This is a semitruck, multi-ton, commercial-grade transport. Within it is an iron chamber that is meant to house explosive material that can be safely detonated and its pressure vented in a manner that renders that material safe… this vessel should have been able to safely dispose of that material."

Instead, the cops blew up the neighborhood, causing extensive injuries and property damage.

That Arturo Ceja III and people like him exist across California and elsewhere is no surprise. People enjoy fireworks, the possession and use of which are severely restricted by law in California. Inevitably, underground dealers emerge to satisfy demand that can't be met by legal sources. "Fireworks in California can be sold for as much as four times what purchasers pay for the fireworks in Nevada," the U.S. Attorney's office helpfully points out.

Black market dealers aren't necessarily the sorts of professionals who adhere to standards dictated by industries and insurance companies. They offer commercial-grade rockets mixed with homemade devices and store their goods in residential neighborhoods. That can have nasty outcomes.

"In March of this year, a home was rocked by explosions caused by a massive cache of illegal fireworks," KABC reported earlier this month. "Two cousins were killed in the blast and subsequent fire."

State and local authorities have stepped up enforcement, but that's had little impact.

"California residents already know the struggle to rein in the use of illegal fireworks," Priya Arora noted in The New York Times in mid-June. "Residents in Fresno have made hundreds of complaints to law enforcement agencies and City Council members in recent weeks about the almost nightly sound of popping fireworks," Arora added.

As authorities should know by now, imposing legal restrictions on any popular good or service does less to limit availability than it does to drive the market beyond control and into the hands of criminals. We've seen that with alcohol, the sex trade, drugs, guns, and now fireworks. Prohibitionists don't eliminate the things they hate; they bring us moonshine, sex workers dodging both cops and pimps, smuggled heroin of uncertain purity, garage-built ghost guns, and explosives piled in backyards. Once a market is driven underground, quality becomes unpredictable, business practices are sketchy, and safety standards take a turn for the not-so-safe.

That's not to say that legal markets are entirely without risk. On July 4, a cache of commercial fireworks blew up in Ocean City, Maryland, as professionals were setting up for a scheduled display. "One employee with the fireworks company suffered minor injuries," according to WGAL. "Police said no one else was hurt."

Compare that toll to the two deaths in the Ontario, California fireworks explosion—or to the 17 people injured when the LAPD tried to dispose of illegal fireworks. Legal markets can't guarantee perfect safety in a world in which that's never an option. But they do create environments in which industry standards, legal liability, insurance rules, public opinion, and regulatory pressures act to encourage responsible behavior and reduce risk.

On the other hand, if you want to maximize the dangers of any activity, go ahead and impose tight restrictions or prohibitions. Then sit back and watch as people who don't give a damn about rules move in and set the standards—and face off against enforcers who can be as dangerous as criminals.

Official attitudes don't have to be restrictive and risk-maximizing.

"This is the time of year that people always ask us about obtaining a fireworks permit," the Marlborough, New Hampshire Police Department posted on its Facebook page the day before the LAPD blew up a neighborhood it was "protecting" from illegal fireworks. "Marlborough does not have a fireworks ordinance so permits are not required. If you insist, you can issue yourself a permit using the template pictured below. Please keep safety a priority, as freedom is best celebrated with ten fingers."

Attached was a picture of Ron Swanson, the libertarian character from Parks and Recreation, holding a paper with text saying "I can do what I want."

There are all sorts of goods and activities in this world that come with a bit of danger attached. Minimizing the associated risks requires keeping those things legal so that people so inclined can enjoy them in a reasonably responsible way. The alternative to legalization isn't an absence of peril; it's a guy stacking contraband on his back patio until cops come rumbling down the street to "protect" the public with ill-considered tactics that blow out windows and put people in the hospital.

NEXT: Darkness at Dawn

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  1. The question is finding common ground on what level of fireworks are acceptable? I agree that people should have greater access to legal fireworks, but acknowledge that for some people that will never be enough. There are always those who want bigger louder fireworks and they can sometimes cause damage and injury to more than themselves. A few year ago couple of not-so-bright guys in south east Wisconsin decided to include a military flare in their celebration. They cause a large fire on a local factory roof where the flair landed.

    1. Shorter: “I don’t know what torts are.”

      I think Congress should step in and put together some common sense fireworks regulation on the order of enlightened, progressive places like my home state. That would obviously be best for everyone.

      1. More honest: “I want to regulate everything I don’t like, and eliminate every risk that I think about.”

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    2. Ironically its easier for me to get commercial-grade fireworks in Illinois, where most consumer-grade fireworks are illegal, than to get them in Indiana, where consumer-grade fireworks are all legal

      The reason is the black market doesn’t care HOW illegal the stuff they sell is, so to the black market suppliers a commercial-grade aerial display is no different than a pack of bottle rockets, so they’ll sell either one to whomever.

      However in Indiana the black market largely does not exist, and generally doesn’t include the average consumer, who’s itch can be satisfactorily scratched by the legal products they can get at any fireworks store

  2. Clearly, the REASON hacks have not noticed the impact that the wildfires have in the western states, not to mention that fireworks were being used to terrorize people in the streets by the ANTIFA bitches. Fucking clueless, urban cunts. I hope the next pack of feral Americans goes Charlie Hebdo on you leftisit supporting puds.

    1. Agreed. Which is why we also need to control the purchase and distribution of batteries, steel wool, dryer lint, matches, plywood, and hockey equipment. Anything to save the world from wildfires and prevent Antifa from creating instruments of terror.

      1. ban compost bins!

        1. Fire extinguishers! (they cause strokes).

      2. I just checked Amazon, and they have apparently ALREADY banned the sale of dryer lint.

  3. Prohibitions drive hazardous activities underground

    Even worse it makes people drive to Pennsylvania.

  4. no one needs that kind of firecracker fire power! You only need a single shot sparkler or one box of pop rocks. Only trained professionals that are heavily regulated and licensed by the state should have access to battle tanks, (bottle) rockets, and m-80’s!

  5. Wow! Did a cop steal JD’s lollypop when he was a kid? This article is pathetic in it’s anti-cop bias. Yeah I understand that Reason has a hard on for the Police and the Legal system. Funny there’s been no mention of the Prosecutorial misconduct with the Cosby case.

    32,000 lbs. of fireworks in this guy’s backyard. No berms to direct any accidental explosions. There is reason to believe that this guy was MAKING Improvised Explosive Devices. In other words BOMBS. Yet it was the “incompetence” of the Police that caused the explosion. Pull the other one JD. At any time all 32,000 lbs. of explosives could have gone up. 17 people injured, how about possibly hundreds killed and a neighborhood destroyed?

    1. Yet it was the “incompetence” of the Police that caused the explosion.

      The police detonated the explosives. They literally caused the explosion, intentionally, in the middle of a neighborhood, unafraid of the consequences. Competence!

      1. The Police did NOT detonate the fireworks. They were being loaded into a container to be taken else where to be detonated. The container was designed to limit the damage caused by a detonation, which it did. The fireworks detonated while they were being loaded.

        1. set aside a small proportion for on-site detonation

          1. dude you gotta light up the Saturn Rocket batteries

        2. “While the fireworks were being removed from Ceja’s home, the LAPD bomb squad determined some of the homemade fireworks with explosive materials were not safe to transport due to the risk of detonation in a densely populated area, according to an arrest warrant affidavit.
          Police decided to destroy those fireworks at the scene using a total containment vessel (TCV), according to the affidavit.
          “During the destruction of the devices, the entire TCV exploded, causing a massive blast radius, damaging homes in the neighborhood and injuring a total of 17 law enforcement personnel and civilians,” the US attorney’s office said.”

          1. In other words, due to the risk of detonation in a densely populated area, the police decided to detonate them in a densely populated area

            1. I didn’t know the Keystone Cops had a bomb squad.

        3. “…The container was designed to limit the damage caused by a detonation, which it did…”

          The container was demolished.

        4. No, dumbfuck. They purposefully detonated them, and invited the media to watch, and the assholes making that decision had seemingly zero contact with the cops loading the fucking thing with box after box of fireworks.

          They overloaded the fucking thing, IOW, and did it because they are dangerously incompetent, and recklessly indifferent to the possibility of harming the people, or their property, in that neighborhood.

          And absolutely nothing will happen to them, beyond the taxpayers cutting a bunch of checks.

    2. That’s really no excuse for the police to set of the equivalent of a car bomb in a residential neighborhood.

    3. I think they were just labeling amateur-made fireworks as IEDs. Had someone wanted to make explosive weapons, they would not have “hidden” them among illegally-stored fireworks.

      1. They are just using the term ‘IED’ because it sounds much more nefarious and scary than ‘homemade firework’.

    4. In addition to the factual errors that others have already pointed out, you seem to have entirely missed the point of the article.

      WHY did this guy have 32,000 lbs of fireworks in his backyard with no berms? Because the local authorities chose prohibition and created huge economic incentives for people already inclined to break rules and take risks to break even more rules and take even more risks. Jurisdictions that allow legal fireworks don’t get morons like this because there’s no economic incentive.

      But, yea, the police very explicitly did cause this particular explosion. Their incompetence may not have been the root cause of the problem but they definitely were the proximate cause.

    5. The cops need all of the scorn and bias here. This disaster was wholly LAPD created, and the people responsible will suffer as much sanction as the cops did who shot up those hapless newspaper-delivery women during the Christopher Dorner hunt. None.

      Or did you not wonder why this detonation within the TCV just happened to have a jillion news cameras videoing it?

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  7. You see, California is in the midst of a drought and fireworks only increase the threat of wild fires.
    The threat of injury due to mishandling of such high explosive fireworks cannot be overstated. There are simply too many stupid people who manage to blow themselves up such as the case in Ontario, Ca.
    The other night, in Toledo,Oh. a U-Haul was loaded with fireworks which then caught fire and blew up sending displays every which way .
    There are fireworks and then there are fireworks…the kind I do not want to see in the hands of amateurs and other stupid idiots.
    There are plenty of legal displays that for the most part, if handled correctly can satisfy most people. Those who feel the need to blow off the larger, commercial grade need not apply. They shouldn’t be allowed to operate a Bic lighter.

    1. Do I even need to ask what your view on 2A is?

      1. Ok, for your info, t, I fully support the 2nd Amendment.
        BTW what does this have to do with idiots and fireworks?

        1. What if it was an idiot with 16 tons of black powder for reloading?

      2. I cant fucking take target practice in my backyard… Fuck these disrespectful morons and their commercial fireworks.

    2. >>the kind I do not want to see in the hands of amateurs and other stupid idiots.

      judges all the books by the cover at one time?

      1. Because there are too many stupid idiots who can buy these.
        Judging by the recent activities of such people, it appears there is an onslaught of stupidity.

  8. The cops were goobers here, but if any of you have been to Southern California during the 4th, you’ll see that “illegal” is basically a meaningless term. I don’t know what actual enforcement is done.

    I can see literally hundreds of private fireworks shows going on from the deck of my home with only a limited view of the valley. It’s actually comical and there’s no realistic way the cops can keep up with it.

    1. “Illegal” means that there are no legal, regulated and insured sellers of these products. “Illegal” means they’ve created a vacumn that is inevitably filled by unscrupulous sellers of unsafe products. “Illegal” means that they’ve created an environment where people can’t complain about those unsafe products without admitting to committing their own crime.

      The fact that the police either don’t choose to enforce the law or can’t enforce the law doesn’t change the fact that merely making it illegal has all sorts of perverse effects.

  9. The explosion occurred after police arrived at the home of Arturo Ceja III

    Just look at that name. Definitely a white supremacist.

    1. Obviously a member of the Proud Boys and local militia.

  10. Perhaps the most basic human tendency: blame someone else.

    (and I suspect one of the earliest things toddlers learn)

  11. The alternative to legalization isn’t an absence of peril; it’s a guy stacking contraband on his back patio until cops come rumbling down the street…

    Yeah yeah right, 32,000 lbs of fireworks is “a guy stacking contraband on his back patio”. I guess everybody sucks at their job (including journalists) coming back from a long weekend.

    1. For every guy with 16 tons of fireworks in his backyard there are probably 50 guys with 1 or 2 tons that they picked up with a Uhaul truck

      1. A good example of that is the U-Haul in Toledo, Oh. exploding.

  12. This is a weird discussion for a libertarian sight. Discussion should be centering around just how far freedom extends… Not whether you have any at all.

    The second amendment is clearly implicated here, with the invocation of “improvised explosive devices” to make it sound more sinister. The folks who want to limit the second amendment the most severely invoke muskets as their standard that is beyond objection…. So even those folks should be arguing that owning a bunch of black powder and making explosive devices is constitutionally protected.

    “Shall not be infringed” certainly covers blanket prohibitions on any small explosives or caches of black powder. So entirely separate from any policy considerations, the black letter language of the law clearly protects private ownership of these materials.

    1. That being said, don’t store 32,000 pounds of explosives in your urban home. That is dialing the idiot meter up way too high.

      1. Like the idiots in Ontario with a house full of illegal fireworks that happened to explode killing the two occupants and shattering windows around the neighborhood.
        You have the right to purchase whatever….you also have the right to be as stupid as you want.

      2. You store 16 tons and what do you get?

        1. A 60,000 foot high. 🙂

  13. “Fireworks in California can be sold for as much as four times what purchasers pay for the fireworks in Nevada,” the U.S. Attorney’s office helpfully points out.

    If the fireworks were legal in Nevada, just not in California, then why are the Feds involved?

  14. Ten or so years ago they legalized fireworks in my state, and contrary to the naysayers everyone didn’t die.

    In fact the opposite happened. Now that they’re not forbidden fruit, there’s fewer backyard shows than when they were banned.

  15. “Want to Reduce the Danger of Illegal Fireworks? Legalize Them.”

    Problem solved! Now only legal fireworks are dangerous.

    Because we all know that making something illegal is the only reason they are dangerous. It’s not like they are explosives or anything. Oh, …, hmmm.

    1. In seriousness, I was a munitions maintenance officer in the Air Force and am an avid model rocketeer. There are risks, and, to be clear, they aren’t insurmountable.

      The thing is, you need to follow protocols. And, from the people up and down my road in PA (where a lot of fireworks are legal), they don’t (that is, they are more risky than they need to be). That doesn’t even include the drinking and fireworks or dumbass ‘lets watch this explode’ stunts. JPP lost fingers. A pro baseball player lost a life. It wasn’t the fireworks, per se, it was the dangerous use of fireworks.

  16. All fireworks should be banned. Period. They’re loud, smelly, annoy me and others, scare animals, and cause fires and injuries.

    I’d be fine with the immediate termination of anyone setting off or storing fireworks within a mile of any homes.

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