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Local Editorials

It’s time to end Iowa’s ban on fireworks

As a kid growing up, I was never all that impressed with fireworks. Living in the country, and having access to my father’s 8 lb. mortar, I could pretty much blow up anything I wanted on a regular basis.

Not that I did. But, if I wanted to, I could have.

My interests, however, were elsewhere. By the time I “grew up” — I know, it’s debatable even now — I had dozens of model rockets.

I had simple, single-stage “lawn darts,” multi-stage “envelope pushers” and even a few replicas, like my favorite — a scale model of a Saturn V rocket. I even had one with a payload bay, and one with a camera that activated a split second before the parachute would activate.

I like big, professional fireworks displays, though. And I figure if someone wants to go to the trouble of putting one one for themselves, I can live with that.

But in Iowa, you can’t do that. At least not yet.

For decades, the sale and possession of consumer fireworks has been forbidden in Iowa. And, as poll after poll comes out suggesting a majority of Iowans agree, I think it’s time for that law to change.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, over the past 40 years, the use of consumer fireworks has skyrocketed by nearly 800 percent. What that means is Iowa is missing out on an opportunity for new business and sales tax revenue opportunities while it allows neighboring states to cash in — illegally — on a government-created retail niche.

I mean, seriously, who hasn’t seen the caravans of cars crossing back over the Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska borders — looking a little heavy in the back axles — right around the Fourth of July?

The reason for the prohibition on cosumer fireworks sales is actually built on a fable emerging from a very real tragedy that happened nearly 85 years ago.

In June of 1931, the downtown business district and several surrounding blocks of Spencer in Northwest Iowa were burned to the ground. Opponents of allowing the legal use of consumer fireworks say The Great Spencer Fire was caused by “a child mishandling a firework.” 

In fact, a number of more recent “historic flashback” stories have latched onto that lie. Yet, if you look back at the news reports of the day (I use the Associated Press report from the day of the fire), “a lighted sparkler in the hands of a small boy ignited a fireworks display in a corner drug store,” resulting in the destruction of more than 200 buildings.

That fire happened in 1931. Iowa’s fireworks ban was adopted by the General Assembly in 1938, not as a result of the Great Spencer Fire, but because other states — most notably Michigan and New Jersey — had already adopted similar bans as part of a nationwide push for fireworks bans.

The irony of the Spencer connection to Iowa’s fireworks ban, however, is the fact that sparklers remain one of only two firework products, along with “snakes,” that are allowed to be sold, possessed or used — without government permission — in the state.

But, as the sale of fireworks continues to increase, the CPSC also reports the number of fireworks-related injuries have plumeted by nearly 90 percent during the same 40-year period. Much of the safety improvement has been a result of the consumer fireworks industry policing itself.

The American Fireworks Standards Laboratory began testing fireworks at the factory level in China in 1994 for compliance with U.S. federal manufacturing and performance standards. If a commercial firework product fails the AFSL testing, it cannot be imported into the U.S.

The AFSL’s testing, in conjunction with other CPSC safety initiatives have produced smarter and safer consumers of fireworks. According to the CPSC, more than 200,000 children will be seen in hospital emergency rooms this year for injuries sustained while riding a bicycle. It seems foolhardy to suggest riding a bike should be made illegal.

Look, I get the public safety concerns involving combustible materials. I scorched my own leg while dealing with a malfunctioning rocket when I was 13 years old.

I didn’t die. I didn’t lose any limbs, or burn down any homes. The incident, which was not of my making, made me even more careful about safety.

I think the best way to deal with ignorance — and let’s face it, there’s a lot of it out there — is with education. A friend of mine who serves in the Iowa Senate, Jake Chapman of Adel, who is leading an effort to reverse the ban, points out Indiana and Minnesota experienced reductions in fireworks-related injuries after legalization.

He agrees education is useful.

“I have found that with targeted safety messaging from the fireworks industry and enforcement agencies, like the State Fire Marshal, a more knowledgeable and safety-conscious public will result,” he said. “With a safer product and a more educated consumer, I believe the time is now for Iowa to join the ranks of some 37 other states in the country and make legal the sale and use of consumer fireworks.”

When you consider the jobs that would be created, new business opportunities realized and the economic development that could result from domestic consumer fireworks sales, what Chapman is proposing makes sense. The truth of the matter is those fireworks are already being bought — in Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska — and once that money leaves the state, it’s highly unlikely to come back.

It’s time to end the ban.

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If you’re reading this, thank a teacher. If you’re reading this in English, thank a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.

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