America, or at least its urban precincts, is awash in small-scale and likely illegal nightly fireworks displays. Or at a minimum, it is awash in reports of such displays, with everyone from Oprah magazine to the New York Times weighing in on the increased firework activity.
New York City saw a massive increase in complaints about fireworks filed this June; Boston also has a large, verifiable increase in complaints. Most cities don’t make this data available, so it’s harder to assess exactly what’s going on. But I certainly felt like I heard more fireworks in DC this month than I have in my previous 16 years in my neighborhoods, and colleagues around the country feel the same way.
The apparent trend, paired with a lack of clear information and a growing climate of distrust in institutions, has sparked some fairly extreme theories, including a potential police department psyop.
It is unfortunately not possible at this point to deliver a completely unambiguous explanation. There do, however, appear to be a number of more everyday factors at work.
In particular, several downstream consequences of the coronavirus pandemic may be contributing to firework noise. One is that people are spending more time at home, with more opportunity to notice things. For similar reasons, cities are quieter in general, which makes noises more noticeable. Kids have been stuck at home for months unable to attend school or hang out with friends in normal ways, and fireworks are a fun way to pass the time. And just when there’s more potential interest in creating ad hoc city fireworks displays, there’s extra inventory due to the cancellation of many July Fourth fireworks shows. Last but by no means least, it’s certainly possible that enforcement of fireworks rules has gotten less vigorous — perhaps not so much as part of an elaborate plot as a natural consequence of police power being stretched thin.
For those of us who enjoy fireworks, it’s an unexpected summer treat that’s helping to break up the tedium of quarantine. But annoyed dog owners and light sleepers probably can’t do much but hope that whatever excess supply is present dries up soon after July 4.
The police psyop theory
Robert Jones Jr., a writer whose debut novel The Prophets is scheduled for release in January, has offered what’s probably the most detailed version of the conspiratorial account of the fireworks surge.
“My neighbors and I believe that this is part of a coordinated attack on Black and Brown communities by government forces,” he tweeted on June 20, “an attack meant to disorient and destabilize the #BlackLivesMatter movement.”
In his view, the fireworks are part of a two-pronged effort to promote sleep deprivation and desensitization to explosive noises in urban minority neighborhoods.
2. Desensitization as a means to get us so used to the sounds of firecrackers and other fireworks that when they start using their real artillery on us we won't know the difference. It's meant to sound like a war zone because a war zone is what it's about to become.— Son of Baldwin (Robert Jones, Jr.) (@SonofBaldwin) June 20, 2020
Jones further posited that “there is NO WAY IN THE WORLD that young Black and Brown people would otherwise have access to these PROFESSIONAL fireworks” and that the likely explanation is the fireworks are being deliberately provided to youngsters by government agents.
We think the government is providing these to neighborhood young people. These young people are unaware of how they're being used against their own communities and think they're simply being allowed to have the kind of fun that is generally considered illegal.— Son of Baldwin (Robert Jones, Jr.) (@SonofBaldwin) June 20, 2020
This theory seems a little extreme, but it received an apparent endorsement from New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning star Nikole Hannah-Jones on Twitter; the tweet now appears to have been deleted.
The grain of truth here is that we do have clear reports of firefighters getting in on the fun, and anecdotes suggest some police officers are taking a relaxed attitude toward this version of hard-to-conceal illegal activity. The US government certainly has an extensive record of malign meddling with civil rights activists, not only as a historical matter but also in the form of very recent efforts to concoct a violent “black identity extremist” movement around Black Lives Matter activism. But before reaching for “coordinated attack” theories, it’s worth considering some more banal factors.
The fireworks industry is heavily geared toward July Fourth
Fireworks are awesome, and in principle, one could enjoy a delightful fireworks display any day of the year. In practice, however, the American Pyrotechnics Association reports that nearly 80 percent of display firework revenue is associated with July Fourth celebrations, which are widespread across the United States. This year, many of those celebrations have been canceled, and many other firework-intensive events like pro sports have also been impacted by the pandemic.
This creates the potential for diversion of fireworks from the professional display market to the consumer market, complete with the possibility of bargain-basement prices. Combine increased availability of fireworks with pandemic-induced boredom and you have the recipe for unusually lively summer nights.
My new theory on The Great Fireworks Mystery of 2020: the mass cancellation of Fourth of July celebrations has flooded the black market with professional grade fireworks normally inaccessible to most of us— Armand Domalewski (@ArmandDoma) June 22, 2020
The fireworks trade association, however, is pushing back on the diversion theory, arguing that the pro and consumer fireworks markets are more sharply segmented than that.
“Professionals use much more energetic fireworks not available to the general public without an ATF license for possession, use, and storage,” Julie Heckman, the executive director of the American Pyrotechnic Association, tells me. “Those devices are not permitted to be sold to the general public and should only be used by highly trained, licensed professionals.”
Consumer firework sales also typically peak in late June and early July for use on July 4, and Heckman says that this year, “there is definitely an increase in backyard consumer fireworks sales, starting earlier than in previous years.” Heckman publicly predicted a boom in consumer demand at a June 3 industry roundtable and simply sees that forecast coming to fruition. On this account, the connection to event cancellations is just that people miss fireworks, so they are buying more for themselves.
Of course, the fireworks trade association isn’t going to come out and say there’s illegal diversion of professional fireworks happening. But the perception that people are seeing “professional” fireworks in their neighborhood may be a question of regulatory ambiguity. Some states, including California, Oregon, Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, only allow the consumer sale of fireworks that are non-aerial and non-explosive. Thus, if you live on the West Coast or in most of the Northeast Corridor, you probably associate fireworks that explode in the sky with professional fireworks.
The federal regulatory distinction that Heckman is pointing to is different, however: You can buy consumer-grade aerial fireworks in Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, or other states and then drive them home to your less fun abode in Boston or LA or wherever else.
Long story short, to the best of our knowledge one reason you may be hearing more fireworks is because people are buying more fireworks — some of them likely transported across state lines in defiance of local rules. But another factor is that things have become more audible.
We’re all noticing things more
It has seemed to me for months that the birds in my neighborhood have gotten louder. But ornithologists say it’s the opposite and everything else has gotten quieter. With fewer cars on the road, in particular, it’s just easier to hear the birds.
Quoctrung Bui and Emily Badger quantified this for the New York Times, looking at microphone recordings, and confirmed that urban street noise has declined significantly as a result of the pandemic.
Consequently, fireworks (which, again, people are buying more of) are more noticeable with less background noise. You can probably even hear fireworks from farther away than in the past.
Going out less also means you have more opportunity to notice sounds in your house, and everyone has more time to chat about real or perceived trends.
This all adds up to a fairly compelling and mundane explanation of what’s going on. But the fact remains that many of these fireworks are likely illegal to use in the specific places where they are going off, which raises the question of why there isn’t much being done about them and whether there should be.
The country is, after all, in the grips of a nationwide series of protests complaining about, among other things, police treatment of people of color. Under the circumstances, many people are likely to be more hesitant to ask for police intervention when they see something illegal but not particularly harmful taking place. Studies also indicate that it’s fairly common for police departments to reduce their effort level when they feel they are under political scrutiny. And in this case, less zealousness about policing nonviolent mischief is arguably part of what people are asking for.
And while these fireworks are in many cases illegal, they don’t have to be — in much of the country, the regulatory climate is simply laxer. While more widespread legalization of fireworks would likely lead to more injuries, the country is not exactly facing a plague of fireworks-related hazards at the moment. The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that in 2019 there were fewer injuries attributable to fireworks (about 10,000) than to fireplaces (16,000), grilling (20,000), air conditioners (15,000), or fans (18,000), to say nothing of dangers like home workshop saws (74,000) or non-saw power tools (30,000).
In other words, the main practical issue with fireworks in built-up areas is less safety than that they’re loud, which annoys some people and their pets.
In the future, perhaps cities will have some kind of unarmed agency that can address these kinds of nuisance concerns without raising the specter of heavy-handed police involvement with youthful mischief. Alternatively, we could decide that fireworks are fun and the dogs are going to have to learn to deal with it. Or else the fireworks fad itself may just burn bright and brief, as people decide they have better things to do with their days than smuggle fireworks from Pennsylvania.