Criminalizing Fireworks

When Americans celebrate their freedom on Monday, not all of us will have the same freedom to celebrate it. Though about 84 million Americans live in 19 states that allow unrestricted use of consumer fireworks, 36 million other Americans live in five states, including New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, where they need a permit to light even a sparkler.

Safety is the major concern of those who ban our celebratory backyard light and noise shows: Twenty-one health- and fire-safety organizations joined together this month as the National Fire Protection Association to ban the sale of all fireworks to consumers. Their ad campaign is “Leave fireworks to the Professionals.” But their fears are overblown. Media coverage makes the issue seem much bigger than it is: A computerized search of the top 100 newspapers found more than 100 news stories in June warning that fireworks could be deadly or hazardous if used improperly. Television wasn’t much different. CNN on Tuesday headlined its segment: “A look at the dangers of fireworks.” But, despite this slanted coverage, on average just six people a year died in fireworks-related incidents from 2000 to 2003. And many of those deaths occurred at professional fireworks displays.

In contrast, about 15 times more children under the age of 10 drown in bathtubs each year than the total number of people killed in fireworks accidents. Despite the fears raised by the media, fireworks deaths are not something that people should spend much time worrying about. There is no obvious relationship over the years between fireworks use and deaths. Though almost exactly the same number of people died or were injured in 1976 and 2003, fireworks use grew almost every year, soaring from 29 million pounds of explosives used to 221 million pounds.

Ironically, the laws haven’t even produced the desired results. This may occur in part because there were few such deaths to begin with. Last year, states with bans actually had a much higher fireworks-related death rate (.027 per million people) than states without restrictions (.012 per million). Injuries are much more difficult to track, but there were an estimated 9,700 fireworks-related injuries treated in hospital emergency rooms during 2003 (6,600 in the month surrounding July 4th), the vast majority of which were relatively trivial. This is only a fraction of the over 200,000 injuries suffered from falls, accidents in bathtubs, scalding water, and electrocution.

The massive volume of the explosives sold across the United States raises a question: Short of erecting a wall around a state, how effective can any ban possibly be? In fact, banning personal use of fireworks might actually result in more accidental fires if some of those who try to avoid getting caught set them off in remote fields, causing fires that take longer to discover. Teaching the public about how to use fireworks safely is preferable to bans. Moreover, William Weimer, vice president of Phantom Fireworks, makes a pretty simple point: A lot of the accidents result when people drink too much alcohol. As he put it, “If you’ve been drinking, you should have a designated igniter, just like you should have a designated driver.”

We can protect people from only so much, and if we banned all the products that caused more deaths and injuries than fireworks, there would be virtually nothing left to use. After all, what is the Fourth of July celebrating if we criminalize even the tiny risks associated with fireworks?