It's almost the Fourth of July, that noisy time of year when — as a fireworks dealer in a Simpsons episode once phrased it — some of us will "celebrate the independence of our nation by blowing up a small part of it."
Here's how we got to this point in Florida.
Are all fireworks illegal in Florida?
Yes. All fireworks, defined as anything that leaves the ground or explodes, have been illegal to sell or set off in Florida since 1941. The exceptions are those who get a permit from the local government, are illuminating railroads, or are buying them for "agricultural use" to frighten birds away from crops.
In Hillsborough County, for example, there were five active permits for fireworks displays in July 2018. Anyone else there who set off as much as a bottle rocket, unless they were doing it to say, scare migratory cedar waxwings off their blueberries growing next to some railroad tracks, was technically committing a first degree misdemeanor punishable with up to a $1,000 fine and a year in jail.
Really, they're all illegal?
The stuff in grocery stores and gas stations isn't technically "fireworks" under the law. So enjoy your sparklers and those little pellets that turn into snakes, guilt-free. Also, it's nearly impossible to get arrested for fireworks in Tampa Bay (more on that later).
If they're illegal to sell, how come every Independence Day, my neighborhood lights up like, well, the Fourth of July?
Everyone in Florida who buys fireworks at roadside tents and standalone stores signs a form saying they're familiar with Florida's fireworks laws. So, theoretically, they all have lots of birds to scare. Are you calling them liars?
I remember when getting Roman candles meant a shady uncle willing to travel over state lines. What happened?
The bird exemption has been around since the 1950s, but people started pushing that loophole for more powerful stuff in the mid '90s. We got here in part because in 1999 an undercover detective walked into a Phantom Fireworks store on the Overseas Highway in Key Largo, bought a Longhorn Beyond 2000 Aerial Salute, signed the form, and arrested store manager John Miketa for selling illegal fireworks.
State vs. Miketa made it to the 3rd District Court of Appeal, which ruled it's not up to the seller to check the veracity of a buyer's form. Miketa's record was cleared, and the ruling helped cement easy buying and selling with the form, no-questions-asked. Sales have grown since.
Numbers for Florida specifically aren't available, but nationwide sales of consumer fireworks have gone from $407 million in revenue in 2000 to $885 million in 2017.
How does former Phantom Fireworks store manager John Miketa feel about being the man who saved Independence Day for Floridian backyard fireworks enthusiasts?
We asked him. He's 58 now and lives in Youngstown, Ohio. He laughed and didn't want to make a big deal about the impact of his court victory, but he did have this fun anecdote:
"When we first opened that store in the Keys, they were flabbergasted, they didn't like it at all. ... So one day the sheriff marched in. He said someone shot a bottle rocket onto someone's roof, and 'You guys are in big trouble now.' This was, I think, the first year of having people sign the form. So I pulled the form, showed it to him and said, 'It's not my problem.'
"The headline the next day on the front page of the Keys Reporter was 'Not My Problem.' Looking back, that's probably why they came back undercover and arrested me."
Has anyone in Tampa Bay ever been prosecuted for setting them off?
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office maintains a page on its website informing the public of their long-ago attempts to enforce the law, before conceding it's basically impossible to make a case unless a deputy actually witnesses someone lighting them.
The Tampa Police Department and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office both said they have not arrested anyone in at least the last decade, but they do tell people to knock it off.
Ironically, Tampa Bay area law enforcement responds to a huge amount of calls about fireworks. Tampa police received 5,207 such calls in the years 2008 to 2018, but generated only 14 incident reports leading to a handful of arrests for crimes such as drug possession, but never fireworks. The St. Petersburg Police Department responded to 4,820 calls in that time, generating 41 reports with outcomes similar to Tampa.
The reports typically read like case No. 2013-041871, from 2013, when a St. Petersburg officer responded to a man complaining that his neighbors, including "Squirrelie," who he'd been in a dispute with over pet squirrels, were shooting off bottle rockets. The officer told the suspect that the bottle rockets were illegal, and left when the man said he didn't know and wouldn't do it again.
The State Attorney's Office for Pinellas and Pasco counties said it could only find a single person ever prosecuted for the fireworks statute, in 2006.
Wait, do legit farmers actually use fireworks to scare birds from crops?
Sort of, but not really. Diana Perez from Starkey Blueberry Farm in Odessa said they employ a guy whose entire job is to ride around on a golf cart "shooting fireworks" (up to 100 of them per hour) at birds to scare them away. But they're actually Bird Bangers brand "bird scares," made specifically for agriculture and bought in bulk through a farm supplier, not a roadside tent.
Nina Lewis of Bob's Blueberries in Hudson called the fireworks loophole "stupid," and laughed at the idea of anyone going to a seasonal roadside tent to buy something for business. She also said fireworks aren't effective against the giant flocks that eat 10,000 pounds of berries annually and have pelted her with blue droppings, because nothing gets rid of them.
"Propane cannons do the same thing as Bird Bangers and they're cheaper, but they don't work either, the birds just get used to it," she said. "We've tried pie tins, balloons, garlic oil, grapeseed oil, smoke machines, yelling at them, predator bird distress calls — nothing works. We just have to grow enough berries for everyone, including the birds."
Willis Howell, a grower with a much smaller operation, Betty's Blues Blueberries in Citrus Springs, said he did buy bottle rockets from a regular fireworks store once about a decade ago, but laughed when asked if he thought a $100 mortar display that emits a shower of multicolored sparks would be useful for keeping birds away.
"For one, I don't think that would be cost effective," he said. "And the birds only come around in the daylight, so they wouldn't even see the sparks. It's really just about the loud noise. It doesn't work anyway."
The mortars people are shooting off in their cul de sacs look almost as good as professional fireworks now. What's the difference?
Consumer fireworks have grown as big as they can get under federal law, according to Julie Heckman, president of the American Pyrotechnics Association. For the extremely popular reloadable aerial shells, also called mortars, the largest is 1 and 3/4 inches in diameter with 60 grams of explosive. That makes a big boom with a lot of color and crackle, Heckman said, and is actually equal to the smallest-sized shell that's used in professional displays. But it's still a world away from the giant 10 or 12-inch shells the pros also use.
Have we reached the pinnacle of fireworks technology?
The last horizon is fireworks that spell out words in the sky, Heckman says. Manufacturers have been trying for years, but so far it's impossible to ensure that the "M" in Macy's doesn't end up exploding sideways to become a weird "E."
What are the biggest, most powerful fireworks I can buy in Tampa Bay to, ahem, scare birds away?
A store associate at Galaxy Fireworks in Tampa in July 2018 pointed toward the Florida Yard Dog, a "500-gram finale cake" containing the maximum amount of explosive allowed in a single device. You light one fuse and it fires off 300 aerial shots. It costs $300. They also carry a brick of 8,000 firecrackers lit by a single fuse. The most expensive thing in the store was a Rock Da' Block Assortment for $1,200.
Do people spend that kind of dough?
According to the "biggest spenders" sign displayed near the exit at Phantom Fireworks on Gandy Boulevard in Tampa, a Mr. Lincoln spent $8,112 on June 16, 2018 and a James S. spent $3,793 on June 26, 2018.