Should Massachusetts Legalize Fireworks?

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On Independence Day, Americans in all 50 states will light off fireworks.

In only one of those states, however, all consumer fireworks are illegal:  Massachusetts.

Fireworks have been illegal in Massachusetts since 1943. Along with bonfires, they were outlawed during World War II to keep the night sky dark, making the prospect of Germans bombing American cities during the war more difficult. It never happened, but the ban has stayed in place ever since.

Although there is a ban, Bay Staters still use fireworks. They cross state lines to purchase them legally — and ignite them illegally in their home state. Those are jobs — full-time, part-time, or temporary — that would otherwise exist in Massachusetts.

Supporters of the ban cite safety, pointing out that people are injured every year by fireworks. Opponents cite freedom.

At a time when the state’s unemployment rate is estimated to be as high as 25 percent, is it time to lift the ban? Opinions are mixed.

The Massachusetts Libertarian Party wishes Massachusetts would follow the example put forth by the rest of the country and legalize them.

“The ban on Fireworks in Massachusetts while within the rights of the state to uphold is unnecessary and adds to a long list of nonviolent activities that adults are not allowed to undertake,” MassLP communications director John Dixson told New Boston Post in an email message. “There is an inherent risk in all activities and individuals should be allowed to evaluate those risks and make a personal decision knowing that they are responsible for any negative outcomes. The ban on fireworks does not allow for individuals to make that assessment and decision but instead punishes all individuals who would choose to use fireworks by removing their choice.”

Dixson added that existing Massachusetts firework laws are arbitrarily enforced and “create criminals out of individuals who have done no damage to the property of others.”

As Dixson notes, people do light off fireworks in Massachusetts. There has been heightened attention on the matter as of late. New Boston Post noted two weeks ago that the Boston Police Department got 2,300 percent more calls complaining about fireworks in May 2020 than in May 2019 — which some attribute to a lack of other activities (such as work) during the coronavirus emergency.

Julie Heckman, the executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, which represents companies that make fireworks, would also like to see Massachusetts lift its ban.

She told New Boston Post in an email message that consumer fireworks are safe when used properly.

“Consumer fireworks-related injuries and fires decrease when states and municipalities allow them for the general public to purchase and use,” she wrote. “Injuries and fires tend to increase where consumer fireworks are illegal for use. This is because the general public will use backyard fireworks to celebrate their pride and patriotism on the 4th of July. When they are illegal, people do not take the time to plan their fireworks activity in a safe manner but rather, are careless because they are trying to get away with an illegal activity and do it quickly.”

Heckman added that she expects an increase in consumer firework purchases this year with municipalities canceling their community firework displays because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, from 2000 to 2016, the firework injury rate decreased by 43 percent. The drop occurred despite 15 states legalizing fireworks since 2000, according to the Scientific American.

Still, some support keeping fireworks illegal in Massachusetts.

That includes the National Fire Protection Association, headquartered in Quincy.

“NFPA has a long-standing position against the use of consumer fireworks,” NFPA communications manager Susan McKelvey told New Boston Post in an email message. ”Fireworks cause thousands of needless fires and injuries each year, with the majority of injuries sustained by young children. However, all fireworks incidents can easily be prevented by simply choosing not to use them.”

“Fireworks incidents place undue burdens on first responders and emergency room staff,” she added. “By avoiding consumer use of fireworks, people can show support for those already working hard to protect the public this year.”

McKelvey told New Boston Post that in 2018, fireworks caused about 19,500 fires in the United States, five deaths, 9,100 emergency room visits, and $105 million worth of property damage; she noted that the majority of these incidents occurred between June 22 and July 22. Data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission confirms these statistics.

State Fire Marshal Peter J. Ostroskey also thinks the state’s firework laws are fine as they are. He said the Massachusetts Fire Service opposes any changes to the current law.

“The Fourth of July holiday is a busy time for firefighters,” he told New Boston Post in an email message. “We are supervising the professional displays so that they are safe for spectators and licensed operators. While there may be fewer of these shows this year due to social distancing, we are busy responding to all types of fires and medical emergencies. In fact, the week of July Fourth is one of the busiest times of the year for fires. Firefighters, police officers, and medical professionals all ask you to help us help you during this pandemic, and leave the fireworks to the professionals.”

Fire Commissioner Jack Dempsey of the Boston Fire Department echoed that sentiment.

“Despite the enjoyment people get from watching them, they are extremely dangerous, and children should be supervised when around them,” he told New Boston Post in an email message. “Pets can become anxious and nervous around the loud noise caused by fireworks. They can cause extreme burns, loss of fingers, hands, and eyes, hearing loss, or even death. Parents and adults need to set an example by not buying or using fireworks. Children imitate adults, and don’t understand the dangers of fireworks.”

Currently, there is no proposed legislation in Massachusetts attempting to repeal the ban on fireworks. However, there is a bipartisan proposal to remove sparklers from the banned firework list.

State Senator Michael O. Moore (D-Millbury) sponsored a bill to legalize sparklers (S.1436), as did state Representative Bradford Hill (R-Ipswich) (H.2075).

There was a hearing on the bills on September 24, 2019, but no further action has been taken.