Our nation’s odd relationship with things that go … BOOM!
I never knew when it would happen … or how often.
It was rarely in the morning, but sometimes in the afternoon and frequently in the evening when all of a sudden …
Now, this was July 4th in the 1970s in Missouri. The sound of fireworks exploding overhead throughout the day, and heck, even week preceding Independence Day was anything but uncommon.
Fireworks then, as they are now, were legal and people (especially children) loved shooting off scores of bottle rockets, parachutes, Roman candles, whatever you could light that would explode.
But this was different. This wasn’t a boom. This wasn’t even a Boom. It was a … BOOM … a window-rattler.
And there was no mystery as to its cause. Everyone in the neighborhood of 20 houses knew the source. It was, as I called him, the cannon guy.
I was a kid at the time and as such, unconcerned about names. But I sure as heck knew who owned a cannon and I knew that when our country celebrated its independence, cannon guy would be packing in gunpowder and firing off a ball-less shot … or two … or three depending on supplies.
Again, unconcerned with details I don’t know how cannon guy got his cannon, or if it was legal to possess or fire. Maybe he had training and a permit and fired it as part of Civil War re-enactments, who knows? That’s very plausible as some folk in Missouri like to play Civil War, hoping for a different ending.
Regardless of legality, no one was going to harass cannon guy. There was no patrolling police force, and no one in the neighborhood complained.
I thought of cannon guy earlier this week as I heard the sound of bottle rockets exploding overhead, knowing full well those are illegal and much like with cannon guy, no one cared, or at least not enough to do something about it.
I’ve come to learn while Minnesota has a “ban” on aerial fireworks and pretty much anything else with even the slightest explosion, it’s a fairly soft ban.
It’s enough to prevent the sale which in turn, greatly diminishes use of exploding fireworks, but if you are motivated enough to drive to South Dakota or Wisconsin to buy them, you can probably get away with shooting them off … at least on July 4 … assuming you aren’t being a nuisance. Police aren’t actively patrolling the streets looking for offenders, but if you are dumb enough to A: shoot them off in front of police, or B: annoy a neighbor enough to get a complaint, you might be told to knock it off by someone with a badge and the ability to do more if you ignore that request.
And really, that kind of ambiguity seems appropriate.
There isn’t much federally speaking regarding fireworks, leaving the states to decide to the issue. As such, there’s a myriad of laws out there ranging from complete bans on everything (Massachussets) to the Wild West elsewhere like in Missouri, Wisconsin and South Dakota.
Then you have states like Iowa. In 1936, a massive fire destroyed numerous buildings in Spencer after a boy dropped a burning sparkler into a box filled with fireworks in a downtown business. The legislature acted quickly and banned the sale and usage of all fireworks, ironically, except for sparklers (and snaps).
A couple years ago, the state reversed that ban and allowed for the sale and possession of pretty much everything. However, the bill contained the provision that local municipalities could still ban fireworks, establishing an unusual scenario in which local government superceded state law.
Even more bizarre though was Pennsylvania regulations in which businesses could sell whatever fireworks they wanted, except to in-state residents. Residents of Pennsylvania could only buy the boring stuff while folks with out-of-state identification could buy things that went boom. As a result, businesses that sold the boomers popped up all along the state border with New York, where it was illegal to sell them.
Much like Iowa, Pennsylvania recently reversed that strange provision, lured by the all-mighty dollar because as you can imagine, there is tax dollars to be collected in fireworks sales.
Some states simply tax them like any other item. Many others though add an excise tax, like the 12 percent one added on in Pennsylvania. As a result, states are collecting millions of dollars in new revenue as fireworks sales have increased more than 400 percent nationwide in the last 20 years.
Coincidentally, it’s that same lure of untapped revenue sources that is motivating states to legalize other vices such as marijuana and sports gambling.
Minnesota has been a slow to embrace those, but we are seeing steps taken in that direction, including sales of medical marijuana and oils and discussion at the state house about legalizing sports gambling.
Fireworks though? Don’t count on it. With opposition from state emergency officials and the League of Minnesota cities, along with a Democrat in the governor’s office, they seem to be the least likely of the Big 3 vices to gain any kind of status change.
And maybe that’s for the best. Like I said, with the status quo, usage of fireworks in Minnesota, even with spotty enforcement, is a fraction of what it is in other states where it’s legal. As such, there’s fewer injuries and you don’t see clusters of used fireworks littering the streets.
That seems like a reasonable benefit to losing $1-2 million in taxes that we have no problem collecting elsewhere.
Gregory Orear is the publisher of The Journal. His award-winning weekly column, “What’s Going On,” has been published in four newspapers in three states for more than 20 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.