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Illegal fireworks easy to buy _ if you lie

Fireworks City in Pinellas Park brims with buzz bombs, firecrackers, bottle rockets and Roman candles for the Fourth of July.

But aren't all those light-'em-up explosives illegal in Florida?

"All our fireworks are Florida legal," assured manager Dina Oertli.

Yes, the fireworks industry has found a loophole big enough to drive hundreds of truckloads of low-powered explosives into Florida, right around the state law.

By getting their customers to lie about either what they intend to do with their missiles or where they intend to set them off, dealers have been able to circumvent the state law and build a cottage industry into one that rakes in millions of dollars in a four-day selling season.

Actually, it's nothing new. Fireworks stores and a plethora of tent operators learned to exploit the gaping hole in the law years ago, but Florida legislators have consistently declined to do anything about it. And frustrated fire marshals and Tampa Bay police agencies, beaten repeatedly in court, concede they have lost the annual fireworks war, even though a few skirmishes flare up each July.

"We learned our lesson the hard way," sighed Hillsborough County Sheriff Department spokesman Jack Espinosa. "If we see a bunch of kids playing with firecrackers this year, we'll confiscate them. But that's about it."

And if police see adults shooting off fireworks, they'll most likely try stern words or citations for infractions such as criminal mischief _ if they do anything at all.

But fireworks dealers like Sharon Hunnewell, president of Galaxy Fireworks in Tampa, aren't relieved.

The frantic July 4 week is when most dealers do about 75 percent of their annual business. And each July she braces for a pricey legal battle as her temporary hires all across Florida risk arrest.

Over the past five years, undercover arrests have resulted in no convictions. But each summer the onslaught begins anew as the government scrambles to do something.

This summer, officials in Jacksonville and Polk County have arrested fireworks dealers and confiscated illegal fireworks sold to undercover detectives. The county commission in Lee County was talking of keeping fireworks tents out with new zoning laws until fireworks dealers' lawyers showed up. And fire marshals in Longwood were hassling Hunnewell's staffers last week.

"It's a constant aggravation," said Hunnewell, who runs seven stores and several more tent shops in two states from a command post on N Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa.

Like any business that flourishes around the edges of the law, Florida fireworks dealers are a secretive lot. Few speak with a news media they think want to see them shut down. They won't even say how many tents they operate.

But in many ways, dealers are getting more brazen in a business that typically marks up retail prices 400 to 500 percent.

They've papered the Tampa Bay area with billboards and TV commercials. Some have sued law enforcement officials for false arrest. And in June, Phantom Fireworks of Clearwater even mass-mailed a catalog full of illegal boom-booms.

Many items have warnings such as "shoots flaming balls," flashy names such as the $129 "Bootlegger Bomb," and prices as high as $220 for a wood-based rack that shoots shells 170 feet high. In contrast, Florida law only allows the sale of "sparklers," a definition broadened in 1987 to more than 1,000 products that spew sparks, make small pops or spin around on the ground.

In short, anything that leaves the ground or explodes in the air is supposed to be illegal.

But legislators added loopholes that allow people to buy high-powered fireworks for scaring off birds in "agricultural areas" and at "fish hatcheries," for "illumination" by railroad and transportation agencies, and for "blasting" or "quarrying."

So most fireworks dealers now provide multiple-choice forms for customers, who "verify" that they are buying their explosives for the legal use of their choice.

Judges in four counties have ruled that dealers are not liable if their customers lie. Judges have also repeatedly ordered sheriff's deputies to return fireworks that were seized, most recently in Hillsborough County two years ago.

In that case, a county judge ordered the truckload of fireworks returned even though they had melted after baking a month in a police parking lot.

"Easy to beat'

The only successful cases for police have been when fireworks dealers sold illegal fireworks to undercover detectives who didn't sign one of the verification forms.

"Unfortunately we're trying to enforce a state law that is ambiguously written," said Dave Roberts, senior attorney for state Insurance Commissioner and Fire Marshal Bill Nelson.

"The statute is terribly written," said John MacKay, a Tampa lawyer who has made 26 court appearances in the past five years on behalf of six fireworks dealers in Pinellas, Polk and Hillsborough counties. "And it's easy to beat."

But despite all the legal battling, no dealer has tried to have the current law overturned. That would mean the Legislature would have to rewrite the law. And if more illegal fireworks became legal, dealers that specialize in illegal ones would open themselves to competition from stores that already sell huge amounts of legal fireworks.

Consumer fireworks sales nationally have been booming for years, more than tripling to $330-million in the past 19 years. Sales took off after Richard Nixon opened trade to China, still the source of 90 percent of all fireworks sold in the United States.

Then, in 1976, the federal Consumer Products Safety Commission declared all cherry bombs and M-80s too dangerous to be sold. And the commission began setting standards for other types of less-powerful consumer fireworks, which constitute most of what's peddled in defiance of Florida's sparkler law.

They are labeled Class C fireworks, meaning they contain no more than 50-milligrams of explosive black powder or gunpowder. Fuses must last 3 to 6 seconds. Fireworks set off from the ground must have a base at least one-third as wide as the firing tubes are high.

Bare-bones instructions _ "For outdoor use. Do not hold hands over top when lighting. Light fuse and get away" _ are kept simple by federal fiat. And the ingredients are left off to keep buyers from inventing recipes or bolstering firepower.

So it's hard for consumers to know what they're getting. For instance, M-80s, M-100s and cherry bombs are most likely potentially dangerous bootleg versions or low-powered fakes, said John Conklings, director of the American Pyrotechnics Association. Some under-the-counter versions pack as much wallop as a quarter-stick of dynamite.

Much of the growth in fireworks sales has come as relaxed standards creep across the nation. Only 10 states prohibit all consumer fireworks, down from 26 states as of 15 years ago.

"Critics continually point to the number of injuries caused by fireworks," said Conklings. "But the rate of injuries has been declining when compared to the increase in the amount of fireworks being consumed. More people are hurt riding bicycles or by in-line skates, but you don't hear anybody talking about banning them."

The rate of fireworks-related injuries has been relatively steady at about 12,600 people nationally the past few years. And while several people have died staging public fireworks displays, consumer-market fireworks have not claimed a life in the United States in three years.

Tug of war

The federal government doesn't downplay injuries, though. In fact, the Consumer Product Safety Commission last month ordered the industry to redesign bottle rockets so they don't misfire as easily when tipped over. Those fireworks led to a rash of eye injuries in 1994, but most were caused by people aiming bottle rockets at other people.

Fireworks laws in Florida have been a tug of war for years. Fire marshals want fireworks banned. The industry, armed with high-profile lobbyists, would prefer "realistic" restrictions.

"The fire marshals and law enforcement always present regulation in a form like Prohibition," said James Harold Thompson, a former House speaker who represents a Quincy fireworks factory. "Anytime you cut off all access to something people obviously want, you have problems. I think the Legislature knows the public wants to buy fireworks and use them responsibly."

So the charade continues. Each October, a contingent from the state fire marshal's lab goes to a test site near Tallahassee to test the industry's new sparklers.

The industry has learned not to try anything more potent. So the only surprises come when technicians light a fuse and the item rolls around instead of holding still.

"It's all pretty tame," said Terry Barrow, program coordinator. "Some of them have flashy rockets and flames painted on them, but for the most part they just sit there and shoot off some sparks."

After a 1994 fireworks-related death in his hometown, state Rep. John Rayson, D-Pompano Beach, tried without success to get the Legislature to set standards for people who operate public fireworks displays.

Next year, he is going to try again, perhaps also taking on the rules for fireworks sold to consumers.

"It's an archaic law. Most people buying these fireworks are clearly not miners or railroad workers," Rayson said. "But to a lot of people it's a personal freedom issue. And everybody else is only concerned about fireworks during the holidays."

Safety tips for fireworks

Light fireworks in a clear area away from houses, dry leaves and flammables such as gasoline and charcoal lighter fluid.

Light fireworks on smooth flat surfaces only after reading the instructions and warning labels.

Do not allow young children to play with fireworks. Allow older children to play with fireworks only under close adult supervision. Designate at least one sober adult to light fireworks.

Keep a bucket of water nearby.

Do not try to re-light duds. Douse them with water.

Do not tip fireworks in an attempt to achieve special effects.

Keep unused fireworks away from the firing area.

Be sure people are well out of range (at least 25 to 30 feet) before lighting fireworks.

Fireworks that do not carry a manufacturer's name and address are likely illegal.

Never carry fireworks in a pocket.

Never light fireworks in metal or glass containers.

SOURCE: U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, American Pyrotechnics Association

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