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Patriotism as pest control: Florida’s weird fireworks law

Tribune/Scripps Capital Bureau
Published: June 29, 2014 Updated: June 29, 2014 at 10:10 AM
Galaxy Fireworks President Sharon Hunnewell-Johnson jokes that the name should be Galaxy Funworks.

TALLAHASSEE — The coming of Independence Day means fireworks season — and the beginning of the institutionalized charade behind their sale in Florida.

In the Sunshine State, one does not buy a bottle rocket for recreation; one buys it to scare birds away from farms and fisheries.

That’s right: Explosives for pest control.

Technically speaking, consumer fireworks are illegal in Florida. But nearly 60 years ago, state lawmakers passed an exception — now the only one of its kind in the United States — for fireworks purchases by farms and fish hatcheries.

That’s how vendors, including those in the ubiquitous tents that spring up along Florida roadsides, have gotten around the general fireworks prohibition for years.

They simply ask customers to sign forms saying they’re buying under an agricultural or other exemption. There’s also one for illuminating a stretch of railroad.

The Division of State Fire Marshal prepares a guide for fireworks inspections, and enforcement is left to spot-checking by local police and fire agencies.

The state’s courts, however, have said that sellers aren’t required to make sure a fireworks customer really needs to light up a railway or chase off geese.

Even the head of the country’s leading fireworks trade group is bemused by Florida’s approach.

“There are superstores selling fireworks just to get rid of pests?” said Julie L. Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association. She said no other state has an agriculture exception.

“With the expansion of consumer fireworks sales in Florida, there should not be a critter left alive there,” Heckman said.

A handful of counties, including Pinellas, have local ordinances more restrictive than state law, such as explicitly banning the sale of projectile fireworks.

Meanwhile, the Legislature hasn’t been moved to change the statewide status quo.

In fact, the only legislation introduced this year essentially would have legalized consumer fireworks. Both House and Senate bills died in committee.

That’s because the industry is “very happy with where things are at,” said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who sponsored one of this year’s bills.

By making people sign the exemption forms, “we force Floridians to commit fraud to buy anything other than a sparkler,” Brandes said.

The year before, other bills would have gone the opposite direction, either repealing the agricultural exemption or requiring a buyer to actually show an agricultural license.

Those measures also died in committee.

“It’s like the tip of an iceberg,” said state Rep. Mark Danish, D-Tampa, who sponsored the repeal bill in 2013.

“If you try to change even one thing, you open the whole can of worms of whether fireworks should be legal or illegal in Florida,” Danish said. “And no one wants to open that can.”

It’s not as though fireworks companies have been throwing around a lot of campaign money to maintain the status quo.

In the past 10 years, they’ve contributed only about $60,000 in Florida House and Senate races, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

State records show three companies have registered lobbyists in Tallahassee: Southern Comfort Fireworks of Alabama, Shelton Fireworks of Missouri and Galaxy Fireworks, which is headquartered in Tampa.

Sharon Hunnewell-Johnson, Galaxy’s president, takes pride in her products’ safety, which she says exceed federal requirements.

She says consumers also have a responsibility to follow directions and use fireworks correctly.

As to Florida’s fireworks laws, Hunnewell-Johnson said, “As an industry, we’d like it to be a lot cleaner, but we don’t want to be put out of business.

“I have a joke that we should take the ‘fire’ out of our name and call it ‘funworks’ instead,” she said.

Nonetheless, last year there were eight deaths and about 11,400 injuries nationally from fireworks, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported Thursday.

That’s up from 8,700 injuries in 2012. And of last year’s injuries, 65 percent happened in the 30 days surrounding the Fourth of July, the commission said.

Most incidents resulted from improper handling or modification of fireworks or both, the report shows.

In one case, a 54-year-old man died after he set off an altered mortar shell by holding the launching tube near his chest.

In Florida, fire departments responded to 120 fireworks-related incidents, resulting in $302,000 in property damage and two injuries, according to the Department of Financial Services, which includes the Division of State Fire Marshal.

If that number seems low, it’s because it doesn’t include those who declined medical attention on the scene, drove themselves to a hospital or decided to seek treatment later, Division of State Fire Marshal spokeswoman Ashley Carr said.

Injuries also may be underreported because people could have been afraid of getting in trouble and wouldn’t say they were hurt by fireworks, she said.

Forty-six states allow at least some consumer fireworks, often through exemptions or other loopholes.

Four states — Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York — ban all consumer fireworks.

Hunnewell-Johnson said it’s too early to get a handle on this year’s sales, but she noted that July 4th falls on a Friday.

“I think the industry is planning for a good year,” she said.

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