clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why are fireworks laws so complicated?

Each US state has its own arcane set of regulations, but moves are being made to change that.

People’s heads silhouetted against a night sky with fireworks.
We’re living in a golden age for fireworks in America.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

On January 1, 1938, Iowa passed a law that banned the sale, possession, and use of fireworks within state borders. The local Congress moved to action after an infamous inferno engulfed the tiny heartland town of Spencer in 1931, destroying 80 businesses and racking up $2 million in damage.

The alleged culprit? A local kid, who was taking refuge from the summer heat in a corner drugstore. According to the folklore, he accidentally dropped a lit sparkler into a crate full of other, more combustible pyrotechnics, which created a blaze that quickly tore through the isolated town. The devastation was grave enough (although there were no deaths), and the outrage was fierce enough, that the moratorium on firecrackers, bottle rockets, and Roman candles remained the status quo in Iowa for more than 80 years. Ironically, sparklers were never outlawed.

All that baggage meant it was an uphill battle for state Sen. Jake Chapman when he sponsored a bill to legalize fireworks in the state in 2017. Chapman was staring down an issue that’s vexed hundreds of policymakers before him: America’s beguiling network of messy fireworks laws, which seems to mutate and contradict itself every day. Redefining holiday explosives as a normalized consumer product remains a longstanding taboo for so many states.

Julie Heckman, the executive director of the American Pyrotechnic Association, tells me we’re living in a golden age for fireworks in America, with a rampant increase in legalization over the past decade and only one state (Massachusetts) maintaining an outright ban on the merchandise.

But the literature in the local precincts is downright Kafkaesque. In Ohio, for instance, it is legal to purchase certain fireworks like firecrackers and bottle rockets, but it is illegal to set off those same fireworks within state borders. Until very recently, Pennsylvanian fireworks stores were free to sell all types of fireworks to anyone … except Pennsylvanians, who were quarantined to a very strict subset of explosives. For generations, you could live across the street from a seasonal fireworks tent on the outskirts of Allentown, and by the letter of the law, you were committing a crime if you ventured inside to buy a pack of air bombs.

Instead, those stores catered to out-of-towners from New York, a state that maintains its restriction on everything but the boring stuff like sparklers and smoke bombs. New Yorkers would pack their coffers with contraband before retreating back over state lines, essentially taking advantage of one law in order to break another. (In 2017, Pennsylvania reversed course, finally granting its citizenry explosive equality.)

It is odd that the United States has such a strange, tenuous relationship with fireworks, especially considering how shoppers’ liberty is one of our defining doctrines. In many ways, it is far more legal to shoot a gun in Iowa than it is to light a firecracker. The vast majority of these laws specifically target “consumer fireworks” — the stuff you buy in roadside tents — rather than “display fireworks,” which are the professional sky-scorching arrangements that Disneyland lights off every night.

That itself is an issue of arbitration; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives directly regulates the importation and manufacturing of all display fireworks, and while anyone producing consumer fireworks does need to receive a federal explosives manufacturing license, Capitol Hill has no hand in coordinating the distribution or storage of the merchandise.

The moral panic isn’t justified by the numbers, either. In 2018, Americans consumed an all-time-high 277 million pounds of fireworks, with an estimated injury-per-100,000 pounds ratio of 3.2 — the lowest that number has been since the mid-’70s. Sen. Chapman tells me he found predictable roadblocks in his campaign for legalization in Iowa; the emergency services and medical contingency were wary of reintroducing combustibles to the state. Combine that eternal fear with the sheer age of some of these laws (New York banned fireworks in 1909) and you can see how teetotalism became a tradition.

The irony here is that despite all the arcane restrictions, most states do see the benefit of making fireworks part of their economic plan. The industry continues to multiply its bottom line. In 1998, consumer fireworks generated $284 million in profit; today, 20 years later, that number has jumped to $945 million. Heckman explains that the spike in sales can be chalked up to the slow liberalization of fireworks laws. Policymakers have grown tired of “watching [that money] drip into neighboring states” and have introduced pyrotechnic taxes as a reliable moneymaker. When Georgia legalized fireworks in 2015, it did so with a 5 percent tax on every sale. In 2017, the state reported an extra $1 million in revenue by nickel-and-diming every bottle rocket.

That’s actually a bargain compared to Pennsylvania. When that state rolled back its embargo, it did so with a hefty 12 percent tariff on top of the standard 7 percent sales tax — with early returns putting the profit somewhere around $3.5 million in the first two quarters. That is a lot of billing for a very narrow industry, and from that perspective, you can start to understand why state legislatures twist the books into pretzels in order to keep that fireworks money indoors.

Naturally, fireworks shops have a chilly relationship with the specialized taxes enforced on their product. Phantom Fireworks, a pyrotechnic giant with fireworks stores all over the country, went as far as to file suit against the state of Pennsylvania, claiming those punitive rates were a violation of the tax code. When I spoke on the phone with Phantom Fireworks vice president William Weimer, he made his case clear: Fireworks taxes are anti-consumer and anti-fun.

”We’re welcome in the community. We join the Chamber of Commerce. Five percent, 6 percent, 4 percent … two states have [a] 12 percent [tax], which is just ridiculous. Anybody in those states who live near a border will just go to an adjacent state and buy fireworks there to avoid paying the 12 percent. If you’re spending five or six hundred bucks on fireworks, 12 percent is a big chunk of change,” he says. “We’re not against a tax around 3 or 4 percent that hopefully helps fund the fire services or inspection costs. … That’s great.”

Weimer has been in the explosives business for 25 years, and he speaks like a man who’s resigned to the inherent enigma of American fireworks regulation. As far as he’s concerned, there will always be those in government who are steadfastly against an open fireworks exchange, keeping the market fussy and capricious, a million different irritable subdivisions acting as a persnickety whole.

Phantom Fireworks has 78 vendors around the United States, and a whole department of the company is dedicated to parsing the metamorphic nature of local fireworks laws. Sometimes that means arguing about tax policy, sometimes that means altering the nomenclature of a specific state’s outlets. (In Ohio, where it’s legal to buy but not detonate fireworks, Phantom refers to its locations as “showrooms,” not stores.)

”It’s labor-intensive. The accountants are responsible for tracking the fees and taxes. My department is responsible for tracking the legal changes. But it’s no different from any highly regulated commodity. The laws change like the clouds change,” says Weimer. “You have to stay on top of it. We subscribe to services and trade associations, and help each other out on those lines. It’s a pain in the neck, but it’s one of those necessary things we have to do.”

So what happened in Iowa? Eventually, Chapman did get his fireworks bill across the finish line, but after hours of concessions and exceptions on the debate floor, the regulations built into the law were rendered deliriously opaque. Vendors are authorized to sell fireworks during two intervals; June 1 through July 8, and December 10 through January 3. Customers can fire off those fireworks legally within those same two intervals, but only between the hours of 9 am and 10 pm.

Of course, all that hinges on where you live in Iowa, because the state government conceded authority to counties and cities so that they may further restrict or even outright prohibit fireworks — creating a bizarre Catch-22 where ultra-local ordinances supersede the legislation of the statehouses. (As you might imagine, fireworks remain illegal in Spencer.)

Currently, Chapman’s efforts to curtail provincial power hasn’t gained traction in the state Congress.

As he told me, “There’s a lot of Iowans who want to follow the law who don’t know if you’re on one side of the street you can fire them off until 10 pm and if you’re on the other side you can’t fire them off at all.”

Sign up for The Goods’ newsletter. Twice a week, we’ll send you the best Goods stories exploring what we buy, why we buy it, and why it matters.