For several weeks the night air in many New York City neighborhoods has been filled with the flash, pop and smoky haze of illegal fireworks, prompting Mayor de Blasio to promise a “sting operation” focused “everywhere they’re being sold around New York City, and even where they’re being sold in surrounding states that we know are flowing into New York City.”
This is hardly the first time New York officials have raised alarms about dangerous traffic from other states. Guns have been known to flow to the five boroughs via I-95 (a.k.a. “the iron pipeline”) from southern states with looser firearms—so much so that former Mayor Bloomberg sent private investigators to expose shady dealers in Georgia, Ohio, Nevada, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. More recently, Gov. Cuomo has ordered a mandatory quarantine for visitors from states seeing spikes in coronavirus cases.
There’s one difference in the case of fireworks: A fair number of politicians in what is likely the primary source state also think there’s a problem.
In 2017, three states in the northeast relaxed their fireworks laws. New Jersey permitted the use of non-aerial fireworks. New Hampshire allowed heavier stuff, like bottle rockets. And so did Pennsylvania. (Connecticut in 2018 considered a change to its prohibition but, amid opposition from municipal law enforcement and fire officials, the effort died, so the Nutmeg State still bans everything except sparklers and fountains).
It’s possible that New Hampshire or even states farther away are the source for some of New York’s illegal oohs and ahhs, but given that it’s 90 minutes to the Pennsylvania border and more than three hours to the New Hampshire state line, logic suggests that PA is where most of the booms are bought. The concentration of licensed Pennsylvania fireworks dealers along the state borders would seem to indicate that serving in-state demand is only part of sellers’ business model.
Noise, fire and a death?
Pennsylvania’s 2017 legalization of “consumer fireworks” included passage of a 12 percent excise tax on sales. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue, that tax generated $7.8 million for the state in 2019-2020, its first full year of operation—which suggests about $65 million in sales in the Keystone State.
For several Pennsylvania lawmakers, however, the money comes with trouble attached.
“While they can be really enjoyable, fireworks have become a real problem within many communities. Since we allowed most people to use fireworks that are much bigger and far louder than what was permitted prior to Act 43 of 2017, I have heard over and over again from constituents what a disturbance they have become, particularly how late they are being set off,” wrote Pennsyvania State Senator Kim L. Ward in a legislative memo accompanying a bill she introduced last summer that would have barred the use of fireworks between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. Unless a municipality set different rules.
“Municipalities can obviously establish their own local ordinances to regulate their use, however I’ve spoken with a few police chiefs from within my district who say enforcement is difficult,” Ward continued. “They are getting calls throughout the night. Rules now vary from township to township and residents are easily affected by fireworks being set off in neighboring municipalities.”
In another 2019 bill, Senator Judith L. Schwank sought to address “the disturbances and the risks to people and property, and to the sheer chaos that has been unleashed particularly during July and at New Years.” Schwank referred to a fireworks-induced blaze in Reading that caused more than $50,000 damage to a middle-school roof, and house fire blamed on fireworks that claimed the life of an 11-year-old girl. Schwank’s bill sought to “reaffirm municipal authority to provide for the community peace, safety and order with reasonable requirements and/or prohibitions on the time, manner and location for using consumer fireworks, that do not conflict with state law.
Senator Robert M. Tomlinson, who said his and other lawmakers’ offices “have been receiving many complaints about fireworks activity from residents, especially seniors, veterans, parents with small children, and people with pets” introduced a bill that, among other things, increases the criminal penalties for selling or using consumer fireworks in violation of the Act.”
None of the bills has moved out of committee, however. Champions of the 2017 legalization have been focused not on reining in fireworks sales but on dealing with a court challenge that threw out the part of the law that regulated the use of tents and other temporary structures to sell fireworks.
Few arrests in New York
New York State’s fireworks law only allows for the use of “sparkling devices,” which the state Department of Homeland and Emergency Services defines as “ground based or handheld devices that produce a shower of colored sparks and or a colored flame, audible crackling or whistling noise and smoke” and contain no more than “500 grams of pyrotechnic composition.” Even those devices are barred in counties and cities where local laws have been passed to prohibit them, including New York City, Middletown, Newburgh and the counties of Columbia, Nassau, Schenectady, Suffolk, and Westchester.
Section 270 of the state penal code makes it a B misdemeanor to sell illegal fireworks and an A misdemeanor if you sell works to a person aged 17 or younger or sell fireworks worth $500 or more. A second conviction for sale to a minor within five years is an E felony. Merely possessing or using fireworks is a non-criminal violation, but possessing fireworks worth $150 or more qualifies as having intent to sell.
Fireworks offenses in the Empire State
|2015||2016||2017||2018||2019||1/1 – 6/19|
|New York City||58||49||14||16||11||0|
|Rest of the state||16||3||10||10||1||0|
|New York City||8||9||4||4||3||0|
|Rest of the state||16||5||5||5||8||0|
According to data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, the number of arrests for allegedly breaking state firearms laws has been small and recently has declined sharply, from 74 statewide to just 12 last year; the number of convictions has also shrunk from 24 to 11 over the same period.
At least 41 active businesses dealing with fireworks are registered with New York’s Department of State, from Boomshakalaka Fireworks LLC in Mount Kisco to Misbehaven Fireworks Corp. in Catskill. One Ohio-based company, Phantom Fireworks LLC, has a lobbyist in Albany, but their disclosure statements don’t reveal much about what they’re talking to state officials about.
“I am not aware of any efforts to expand the legalization of fireworks in New York,” Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, tells City Limits. But she notes that her organization does not lobby on state matters. “If any efforts were underway to broaden the scope of what is legal in New York that would come from retail companies and I’ve not heard any rumors about expanding what’s legal in New York.”
Injuries: Lots of risk, few reports
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, fireworks generate 180 emergency-room visits a day across the country during the month around Independence Day.
Last week, de Blasio said the dangers of fireworks, if well-known, would be their own deterrent. “I do think the education efforts are going to make a difference. I think a lot of young people have to be reminded of the dangers,” he said. “I think a lot of parents and family members have to be reminded of the dangers and start talking to their young people and I think that will, that will affect a lot of the reality as well.”
So far, however, the rash of illegal fireworks usage in New York City does not appear to have led to an uptick in injury. Spokespersons for the Montefiore, NYU-Langone and Health + Hospitals systems told City Limits last week that they were not aware of any increase in emergency room traffic related to fireworks.