Here's How America Became So Divided About Fireworks

July 2nd 2015

Ellery Weil

No American road trip is complete without crossing a state line (usually while heading South) and seeing a massive, garishly decorated, fireworks “emporium” just over the state line. Fireworks are legally questionable depending on what state and county you live in, but how did our nation get so divided over something seemingly so American?

The answer is complicated. Fireworks have evolved a lot over the past century. In the 1930s and 40s, fireworks were very poorly regulated, fireworks manufacturer Robert Flanagan told Popular Mechanics. Similar-looking products could vary wildly in strength, fuse quality, and more. This led to a spate of accidents, and caused many states to ban, or at least severely restrict fireworks. Many fireworks manufacturers believe the laws are too draconian for the current era of superior regulation, but state governments have different ideas.

The legal status has always varied by a state-by-state, or even a county-by-county basis. Some states choose a middle ground, allowing certain types of “safe and sane” consumer fireworks (for instance, only those containing a certain quantity of explosives). Some have relaxed old laws—Georgia is allowing several new types of fireworks to be sold, just in time for the Fourth of July.  Some areas, however, are holding their ground. Consumer fireworks are completely illegal in New York City, perhaps unsurprisingly for such a densely populated place, and the NYPD destroys confiscated fireworks in a massive bonfire every year.

Now, fireworks remain one of the only examples of interstate contraband smuggling. That might sound a bit dramatic to describe a quick ride across the state line to stock up for your Independence Day barbecue, but fireworks smuggling has been the pet peeve of state authorities for decades.

It may seem silly, all this legal fuss over a few sparklers and a Jumbo Rocket, but consider that in 2014, there were 11 deaths and more than 10,000 injuries from consumer firework use. One can only wonder how gruesome the figures were in the poorly-regulated fireworks heyday of the 1930s and 40s.

So this year, be aware of your states fireworks laws. And perhaps you might consider skipping the backyard pyrotechnics and watching the official displays most towns and cities put on for the Fourth. They are larger and more impressive than consumer fireworks, and even if they do lack a certain sense of nostalgic wonder, there is no chance of singeing the lawn, or worse, a limb.