So you wanna blow stuff up. After all, Saturday is the Fourth of July. "Rockets' red glare," and all that.
Just make sure you're safe — and we don't just mean physically (although there were 11 fireworks-related deaths across the country last year). Fireworks laws kick into high gear this weekend, so learn the rules or risk trading your liberty for a stay at the Iron Bar Hotel.
What can I use?
You can use anything the state considers a "sparkler," which includes snakes or glow worms, smoke devices, trick noisemakers, party poppers, booby traps, snappers, trick matches that produce a spark, cigarette loads and auto burglar alarms. To make things easy, Galaxy Fireworks' permanent store on East Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard has a "safe and sane" aisle where customers can buy anything without signing a waiver, provided they're over age 18 or accompanied by a parent.
Where can I shoot my sparklers?
In your yard. They're forbidden at parks and beaches in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties.
What's not allowed?
In Florida, it's illegal to buy, sell or explode consumer fireworks — even on your own property — unless you (A) have a city permit to shoot off fireworks for the public to enjoy; (B) will use the explosives to scare off birds from a farm or fish hatchery; or (C) you work on a railroad and need to light or clear a path for your train. The state defines "fireworks" to include standard fireworks, projectile fireworks, launchable rockets with stands, M-80s and bottle rockets.
I thought fireworks were illegal only in Pinellas County.
Nope. Fireworks, as defined above, are prohibited throughout Florida. Pinellas is the only local county that makes buyers show proof from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services that they really do own a fish hatchery. "Pinellas is one of the few counties in Florida that has the stricter fireworks laws. We thought other counties were going to follow our footsteps, but they haven't as of yet," says Michael Cooksey, fire division manager for Pinellas County.
What if I sign a waiver? Won't that protect me?
About half the items for sale in stores and roadside tents are unapproved, which is why they make you sign a waiver. But that paper protects the seller, not you. For instance, here are excerpts from the waiver customers sign at Galaxy Fireworks:
• "I have reviewed Sections 791.04 (In English: I own a railroad company) and 791.07 (I run a fish hatchery) of chapter 791, Florida statutes, and my purchase of the fireworks falls within the expectations specified herein."
• "The seller is not responsible for any damages or injuries caused by the use, misuse, improper use, or illegal use of fireworks."
What about all those people I see setting off fireworks on the Fourth of July and New Year's? They can't all be breaking the law.
Actually, most of them are. But "we just can't enforce that," admits Artie Taylor, fire inspector for Hillsborough County Fire Rescue. Technically, though, if the authorities decide to crack down, no waiver can protect you if you're caught buying or shooting off illegal fireworks, which is a first-degree misdemeanor.
How much trouble could I be in?
Up to a year in prison, a $1,000 fine and court costs.
Why would the store let me buy something illegal? They must know I don't have a fish hatchery!
"The law is what the law is. It's not up to us to police it," said Sharon Hunnewell-Johnson, president of Galaxy Fireworks. Like most fireworks shops, Galaxy sells all sorts of goodies that are technically illegal to the public: The Goliath, a pack of two mortars with 36 shells, goes for $99.95. The Fully Loaded set of four 4-inch tubes goes for $129.95. "These are considered our show stoppers, grand finales," says sales associate Pam Schimmelpfenning. "Most people like to shoot them at the end because they're the biggest and the most explosive."
What if I buy my goods online?
If you're buying sparklers, as described in Question 1, then you're fine. The law doesn't forbid buying illegal fireworks over the Internet, but the second you try to use them, you're guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor.