I grew up with a responsible, safety-conscious firefighter father. And plenty of fireworks.
It didn't take long to learn which of those forces had the upper hand. One Fourth of July, we almost destroyed our garage trying to set off fireworks in the rain. A rocket went awry, and we were chased down the street by red, white and blue sparks. It was awesome.
Through the smoke of Roman candles and bottle rockets, the absurdity of Americans' obsession with do-it-yourself explosives is nonetheless clear: One day each year, we gather with neighbors, friends and loved ones to blow stuff up in our backyards. Go, U.S.A.!
Well, almost all of us. New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Massachusetts ban the sale and use of fireworks. Arizona, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Ohio and Vermont allow only "novelty" -- nonexplosive, nonaerial -- fireworks. (If you can find "novelty" in fireworks that don't fly and don't explode, you have a lower threshold for entertainment than I have.) The rest, including Washington, D.C., allow some or all types of consumer fireworks, which are regulated nationally by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Setting off fireworks on the Fourth of July isn't just fun; it's patriotic. Fireworks are part of an American tradition extending back to the "rocket's red glare" of the country's founding. By 1783, fireworks were available to the public in Philadelphia.
More firework sales mean more revenue in taxes and fees for states. Since 2000, 11 states have eased restrictions on fireworks. Michigan has collected about $2 million more in taxes and fees each year since loosening its rules in 2012. In 2013, U.S. consumers lit up more than 160 million pounds of decorative fireworks, seven times the amount used in display shows, spending $662 million in the process, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association. The majority of that spending -- about 90 percent in 2012 -- goes to Fourth of July celebrations.
Given the presence of gunpowder and a fuse, safety is an important concern. Most fireworks are imported from China, where they are made by hand to avoid accidental explosions. The American Fireworks Standards Laboratory tests most brands on the market.
Not everyone loves the flashing red lights, however. The National Fire Protection Association and the Alliance to Stop Consumer Fireworks seek to educate consumers about the dangers of fireworks. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, in the month around July 4, about 240 people go to the emergency room daily due to fireworks injuries. There were at least eight fireworks-related deaths and 11,400 injuries in 2013. Sparklers caused 31 percent of the injuries, so maybe don't hit your sister with a stick that can reach 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit while emitting colorful sparks.
Setting off your own fireworks is dangerous; you need to act responsibly. Despite the risk -- or perhaps because of it -- Americans continue to honor their country by setting off fireworks on its birthday. Some legislators in New York are now thinking of joining the party. They propose using revenue from firework fees to fund firefighter safety and training programs. Now that's a compromise a firefighter's daughter can celebrate. Preferably with some Asteroid Blasters.
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Frank Wilkinson at firstname.lastname@example.org