Time to Strengthen Fireworks Laws

Kid plugging his ears from noise of fireworks

Fireworks hurting a kid's ears
Every year around the end of June, I used to write about the dangers of fireworks, and every year, the feedback I received from friend and foe alike was almost always the same: “Come on Jim, don’t be a wet blanket. You’ve got to have fireworks on the Fourth of July!” It became obvious that my annual call for banning fireworks was falling on deaf ears (pardon the expression). In fact, the only positive feedback I ever received was from pet lovers whose dogs go into convulsions during holiday explosions. Then, last month came a ray of hope when most North Carolina localities announced they were cancelling their annual fireworks displays due to concerns over crowd control and the spread of COVID-19. But my elation was short-lived when I realized that a decrease in municipal fireworks celebrations would just mean an increase in private celebrations. Sure enough, come dusk on July 4th, people all over the Triad started firing rockets into the sky, and not just the kind that produce pretty colors. The fireworks shot off near our neighborhood produced eardrum-bursting sounds akin to cannon fire, and take my word for it, my family didn’t feel patriotic, we just felt violated. Pardon my French, but this shit has got to stop, and not just because of loud noises.

According to a report by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, hospital emergency rooms treated over 9,000 people for fireworks related injuries in 2018. That number jumped to over 10,000 last year, and children under the age of 15 account for 36% of those injuries. Dr. Erin Miller, a hand surgeon at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, told the Associated Press that she amputated 42 fingers due to fireworks injuries last year alone. And, each year more than a dozen people are killed because of fireworks. National figures aren’t available for 2020 yet, but already reports are trickling in from select cities. In Cleveland, at least 17 people were injured from fireworks over this past Fourth of July weekend, and complaints about fireworks in that city tripled from 2019.

And then there’s the matter of fires. According to the National Fire Protection Association, fireworks are responsible for starting approximately 20,000 fires each year. Of those, nearly 2,000 are structure fires, 500 are vehicle fires, and over 17,000 are outside fires. Moreover, the NFPA estimates that fireworks-related fires cause over $105 million dollars in direct property damage. But there are other types of damage as well. For example, studies by the EPA show that chemical residue from fireworks is causing an increasing amount of environmental damage, including the pollution of lakes, ponds, and ground water. Meanwhile, Science Daily reported that children with asthma had more frequent attacks because of smoke generated from fireworks displays.

Given the number of injuries and deaths caused by fireworks, as well as damage to property, and adverse effects on health and the environment, it would seem that fireworks would be illegal, and they are…sort of. Here in North Carolina, consumers are prohibited from detonating “explosives or aerial fireworks, roman candles, and rockets or similar devices” (NC general statutes 14-410 through 14-415, and 58-82a-1 through 58-82a-55). In fact, possession of those prohibited fireworks is a Class II misdemeanor, but that’s hardly a weighty enough prosecutorial classification for the illegal use of such dangerous explosives.

Last week I spoke by phone with NC Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey who also serves as our state’s Fire Marshal. I asked him what can be done to actually deter fireworks violators. Causey explained that the only way to ensure enforcement is for the General Assembly to amend the statutes in such a way as to include stiffer criminal penalties. In the meantime, Causey and his team continue to produce educational videos and materials that warn against the dangers of fireworks. “It’s not worth the risk, especially when you mix fireworks and alcohol,” he told me. And, the Commissioner said he is ready and willing to appear before the General Assembly armed with statistics on those dangers, should a bill ever be introduced that would seek to further clarify and criminalize consumer use of deadly fireworks.

Currently, state statutes allow for municipalities to present professionally executed fireworks displays operated by vendors who must be properly credentialed and insured in order to fire off rockets and other explosives. Meanwhile, consumers are free to enjoy sparklers and party poppers in their own back yard. The question remains, is there a legislator who will step up to the plate and introduce a bill that will severely punish those who think their back yard is a launching pad for dangerous, deafening missiles? Put another way: Is there a lawmaker willing to endure the fireworks that will ensue from proposing a ban on fireworks? My dogs certainly hope so.

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