PLANT CITY — Arie Fry loves fireworks and the Fourth of July.
It's one of his favorite holidays, but the Plant City teen says he can't understand why a state law requires fireworks purchasers to sign a waiver promising to use them for agricultural purposes like scaring off birds.
"It's a farce," he said. "Most people buy fireworks for entertainment. They should just make them legal."
This past winter, Arie, 14, went to the state capital to get some answers. What he found ignited a long-running debate about the law and why consumers should be asked to make a promise they don't intend to keep. In the end, he learned that making even a small change to Florida's fireworks rules won't happen easily.
His political lesson started last November. A member of the FFA, formerly Future Farmers of America, at Tomlin Middle School in Plant City, Fry interviewed fireworks buyers and sellers as part of an FFA presentation. Then he went a step further, approaching lawmakers about backing a bill in Tallahassee to eliminate the waiver to make fireworks sales legal to adults.
Rep. Mark Danish, D-Tampa, liked the idea and agreed to sponsor the bill.
"From an average person looking at it, it seemed like such a simple thing," Danish said.
It turned out to be anything but simple. Fireworks are illegal except to farmers, fair operators and others who promise to transport them out of state.
By signing an affidavit, buyers promise to use fireworks to frighten birds from farms or fish hatcheries or use them for public displays with permission from a city or county. Violating the affidavit is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.
A few weeks into the session in March, Arie, with help from his mother, Yvonne Fry, went to Tallahassee to check on the bill's progress. Danish showed them the bill and the three were astonished: It said nothing about the waiver and instead called for outlawing fireworks sales altogether. Danish blamed the mistake on the bill-writing office. The bill was corrected, but soon after that the freshman lawmaker ran into another problem.
Danish learned that quashing the waiver wouldn't be easy and could reopen a political debate that lawmakers thought was settled years ago.
"(I was told) if you do this you will bring so many people to the table, the fireworks industry, the fire marshals association, agricultural people," Danish said. "It would mean months of sitting around talking about this issue. It would open up a can of worms."
It turned out the affidavit came about long ago as a compromise between fireworks opponents, including some counties and cities worried about public safety, and the state's fireworks and agricultural industries. Trying to eliminate the waiver, he learned, could trigger a debate about whether all fireworks sales should be banned.
"In order to be able to legalize fireworks, it became necessary to create a waiver for agricultural purposes," Danish said. "A lot of compromise went into that legislation."
Even after the bill was corrected and resubmitted, it ended up dying in committee for lack of support.
Arie said the experience opened his eyes to the political process and made him realize that although most fireworks buyers won't abide by the affidavit, it could take years to phase it out.
"He's very idealistic," his mother said. "He would say: 'Why do we have a law that says this and then nobody enforces it? That's not the American way.' "
Danish said he still backs eliminating the waiver, but he isn't sure he'll have time to sponsor a bill to do so in the next legislative session.
"At this point I'm not sure what I'm going to do," he said. "I'm not sure if I want to take on so many rules, and I don't know how willing all the parties are going to be sit down to make an exception for one form. It would take a tremendous amount of work from a lot of people."
Arie said he knows the odds are against him, but he might still take another stab at the bill. But next time, he said, he would seek backing from several lawmakers and start pushing for the bill long before the legislative session starts in early March.
"My main point is to get rid of the affidavit because it's just a farce," he said.
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.