Fireworks bill may fizzle, but let your frozen thoughts drift to July

Ottumwa lawmaker proposes ending Iowa's 75-year ban on the sale of fireworks.

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March 29, 2014 | 3:23 am

Thanks to state Sen. Mark Chelgren, we can all take a brief mental trip to July.

You remember July. Wind chills in the 80s. Snow comes in cones. Insulation keeps stuff cold. No exposed skin freezes in five minutes.

Chelgren, a Republican from Ottumwa, has sparked a little Statehouse sizzle by offering legislation that would make the sale of consumer fireworks — beyond sparklers, snakes and caps — legal in Iowa for the first time since 1938.

His bill, Senate File 2064, would allow people 18 and older to sell bottle rockets, firecrackers, etc., to other people 18 and older, who could then light them legally. Local governments could still ban fireworks sales, and the governor could suspend sales in the event of an emergency, such as a drought. Sales taxes from fireworks would provide grants to fire departments for the purchase of equipment.

Sadly, there’s nothing at all in the bill about state aid to remove burn marks from those (beeping) snakes on my patio.

And this bill has a Roman candle’s chance in a rainstorm of becoming law. But before the deluge hits, let’s warm our hands on it for just a little while.

THE BAN HISTORY

According to a stroll through The Gazette’s archives, the fuse that led to the state’s 1938 ban was lit in Spencer on June 27, 1931. As the story goes, some kid dropped a sparkler in a barrel of fireworks for sale in a drugstore. The resulting fire, on a windy day, claimed 40 buildings in the downtown business district.

In 1937, the state recorded 24 deaths and injuries because of fireworks. So after much wrangling and debate, the Legislature finally cracked down on firecrackers in 1938. In 1955, lawmakers reluctantly added caps for cap guns to the short list of legal stuff. In 1958, The Gazette’s editorial page issued a strong reminder to space-crazy folks carrying out “amateur rocket experiments” that they’re violating fireworks laws.

If you’re like me, and grew up in Iowa during the ’70s and ’80s, the fireworks ban was more joke than crackdown. When Independence Day rolled round, everybody had fireworks, likely bought in Missouri or South Dakota, and everybody shot off fireworks. On more than one occasion, I watched local cops marvel at these amateur pyrotechnics without lifting a finger, let alone a misdemeanor.

When I was a little kid, on muggy nights after the town display, we’d head to our patio where my dad would light rockets from an empty Red White & Blue beer can. They’d arc into the woods behind our house and report with an echoing pop, before turning the light show back over to the fireflies.

When I got older, my friends and I, of course, weren’t content with this safe and standard approach, so we had bottle rocket wars. The police did get interested a time or two in those pitched skirmishes. Luckily, our warfare yielded no casualties or arrests.

But I also remember my mom telling how, as a little girl in the 1930s, she was injured when “some drunk” lit off a box of fireworks near her. So I was reminded, repeatedly, that it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye or a finger.

INJURY NUMBERS

According to the Consumer Products Safety Commission, Iowa is one of 10 states with very tight restrictions on fireworks or outright bans. In 2012, the commission reports that 8,700 people nationwide were treated in emergency rooms for fireworks injuries, or about 2.8 injuries per 100,000 people. The rate has been pretty steady over the past 16 years. That compares to 10 or so fatalities per 100,000 people attributed to motor vehicles and firearms, and 12.4 who die of drug poisoning. Those rates don’t include injuries.

Surprisingly, sparklers injured more people, 600, than bottle rockets, 400. Not surprisingly, males suffered 74 percent of the injuries, most between the ages of 15 and 44. See bottle rocket war above. Burns to the hand and fingers were most common.

There were six deaths in 2012, which is about average. Two involved illegal, homemade fireworks, one involved a commercial-grade product and one tragedy was attributed to sparklers. Teenagers duct-taped 300 sparklers together into a “bomb” that exploded after they tried to cover it with a bucket. Another guy, curious as to why a mortar didn’t go off, looked down the tube.

So fireworks can be dangerous. Add stupidity, and the risk rises.

SMALL CHANGES OK

Again, I doubt Chelgren’s bill has a chance. I’d be surprised if it even comes to a committee vote. Among the groups registered to lobby against it are the Iowa Pyrotechnics Association, a non-profit group of pros who design and set off legal displays, and something called the Coalition for Citizens’ Safety.

But, at this point, the Iowa Department of Public Safety and the Iowa Firefighters Association are “undecided.”

I think the short list of legal fireworks in Iowa could be expanded to include some of the smaller stuff, such as firecrackers and bottle rockets. I’m personally partial to Whistling Moon Travelers. That stuff is already in broad use across the state, thanks to massive, garish fireworks stands sitting roughly 20 feet beyond our borders.

Lawmakers raised our interstate speed limit, in part, due to the fact that Iowans were already driving 70. This seems similar, and likely would have a smaller public safety impact.

I like the local control aspects of Chelgren’s bill. And having watched a lot of fire departments over the years struggle to make due do with aging equipment because they can’t afford to buy new, or even refurbish old, fireworks as a funding source is intriguing.

It’s at least worth a discussion. Even a short one. Especially this time of year, when July seems a decade away. But take heart, the Fourth of July is in just 145 days.

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