Independence Day? Firework Laws Limit Liberty in Some States


Today, Americans across the nation will continue a tradition that was first sparked in 1777: lighting fireworks. In the earliest days of aerial explosions memorializing our nation’s birth, firework explosions were short, and lacked the variety of colors found at modern day shows. As European courts competed with each other for the best pyrotechnic displays, fireworks made their way to the thirteen colonies, and by 1776, some founding fathers considered them a necessary element of celebratory fanfare for America’s birthday.

“I am apt to believe that [Independence Day] will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival,” John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail two days before the Declaration of Independence was signed. “It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with…Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

Despite the passage of over 200 years in our nation’s history, and the enthusiasm of firework proponents like John Adams, some state laws continue to prohibit backyard firework displays. In Massachusetts, a ban presides on all types of consumer fireworks, including sparklers and ground-based products. Only wooden and wire sparklers are permitted in Illinois, Ohio, and Vermont. In sixteen other states and territories — including Virginia, Colorado, and Washington, D.C. — “safe and sane” consumer firework laws allow only non-aerial and non-explosive fireworks for purchase and use.

Illinois state senator Chapin Rose has made repeated attempts to repeal the restrictive fireworks laws in his state. In Illinois, backyard firework displays can result in fines of up to $10,000 and up to five years in prison.

“Part of liberty and freedom is being able to do what you want to do in the confines of your own backyard and all of our surrounding states are enjoying those freedoms,” Rose said.

In a couple states, recent amendments and new laws have loosened restrictions on firework displays. In Pennsylvania, July 4th will mark the first Independence Day that state residents can legally buy and use aerial fireworks, after a new state law was signed by Gov. Tom Wolf in October. Before the recent law, only out-of-state buyers could purchase bottle rockets, Roman candles, and other aerial fireworks from Pennsylvania businesses; in-state consumers were limited to purchasing sparklers. Delaware, a state that previously banned all fireworks products, passed a law in May that allows fireworks to be legally sold 30 days prior to July 4th and Dec. 31st, and legally used solely on those two days.

Executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association Julie Heckman views increased tax revenue as the primary reason for the recently lifted firework restrictions in several states. In 2017, national consumer fireworks revenue reached $885 million. Heckman expects that with new and higher firework taxes in certain states, the 2018 fireworks season will yield over $900 million in national tax revenue. For suppliers in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, however, both the new 12 percent tax and increased permit fees put a damper on the celebrated recent legalization.

“We’ve had a lot of complaints about the 12 percent tax,” said Darrin Iams, owner of a permanent fireworks facility in West Alexander, Penn.

The new Pennsylvania law has also doubled the cost of maintaining a license to sell fireworks, raising the annual licensing fee from $5,000 to $10,000. While the new tax has raised $406,723 in Pennsylvania between November 2017 and April 2018, private business owners have struggled to cover costs under the new regulations.

In January, five Pennsylvania firework suppliers filed a lawsuit against Gov. Tom Wolf, arguing that the 12 percent tax, on top of a regular 6 percent sales tax, is unconstitutional.

“For commodities like fireworks that are bought and used once a year, a total of 18 percent in sales tax is prohibitive,” director of Pennsylvania-based Phantom Fireworks Dan Peart said in May. “People certainly aren’t shy in telling us the price is too high.”

The lawsuit is expected to be resolved sometime in the fall, after the peak of firework purchasing season is over.

Although lifted fireworks restrictions in several states herald a win for individual liberty and consumer freedom, high taxes and fees in states like Pennsylvania and Delaware are a check on the liberty we celebrate this July 4th. Hopefully, all state laws will soon allow for the celebratory patriotism John Adams wished that each Independence Day would exude. When it comes to patriotism, Adams argued that such enthusiasm is not unwarranted.

“You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not,” he wrote in the same 1776 letter to his wife. “I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means.”

Bridget Starrs

Bridget Starrs works for the American Principles Project.

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