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Fireworks Mayhem in Pennsylvania

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Fireworks Mayhem in Pennsylvania

An ill-advised law fuels a pyrotechnic crisis. July 10, 2020
Public safety

America’s summer of discontent is a season of sleepless nights for Pennsylvania’s city residents. Throughout the state, pyrotechnic mayhem has engulfed urban neighborhoods, thanks to an ill-advised law that lets Pennsylvanians purchase aerial fireworks. The law, in reality a tax scheme, has led to high call volumes to police and widespread anger among residents confronting a quality-of-life crisis in their neighborhoods. As one state representative put it: “My office has turned into an answering service for unemployment problems and fireworks complaints.”

Signed into law by Governor Tom Wolf in October 2017, the measure, part of an unrelated bill, permits state residents to purchase “consumer-grade” fireworks, such as Roman candles and bottle rockets, that contain explosive material. (Such purchases, oddly, were previously limited to out-of-state residents.) The law follows a 20-year, nationwide trend of relaxing fireworks laws; only three states—New Jersey, Delaware, and Massachusetts—have a full ban on consumer pyrotechnics. In Pennsylvania, legislators viewed the expansion as a revenue generator: the law added a 12 percent tax on all consumer fireworks, in addition to the state’s 6 percent sales tax. For fiscal year 2019–2020, the tax raised an estimated $7.4 million for state coffers, in addition to $8.2 million generated between late 2017 and mid-2019. This revenue partly supports a special fund to address the shortage of volunteer firefighters.

The law, though, overlooks the history behind the state’s previous ban, enacted in 1939 following years of disorder—especially on the Fourth of July. As one local newspaper remembered, in 1951, “The Fourth rapidly acquired the questionable reputation of being the one day of the year which excelled all others in casualties,” adding, “the carnage aroused public opinion and demand was made for legislative prohibition of fireworks.”

Clearly, the state didn’t learn from the past or anticipate the consequences of the measure’s passage. The effect is most evident in dense communities, though the law prohibits discharging fireworks toward motor vehicles or within 150 feet of occupied structures—in other words, in cities. The law, moreover, conflicts with ordinances in certain municipalities that ban the sale, possession, or ignition of fireworks within their boundaries. “The state says one thing, but the city ordinance is more strict—no fireworks,” said Hazleton’s acting police chief.

In any case, the measure has created a fireworks nightmare, with police departments struggling to keep pace with emergency calls and residents living in fear of fires, injuries, and constant, gunshot-like noise. On the Fourth last weekend, in Reading, smoke from illegal fireworks filled the sky for hours. One local volunteer ambulance driver struggled to drive through the city. “It was like a war zone,” he told the Reading Eagle. “I mean, there was literally smoke blowing through the streets to the point that in some blocks it was hard to navigate the ambulance.” He added: “The problem we have is that people are clearly not following the rules.” A Reading city councilwoman said, “we were close to having a disaster in the city.”

In Lancaster, police received 214 complaints about consumer-grade fireworks in June, though they’re banned within city limits; fireworks recently destroyed several local garages. In Erie, a resident recently told city council members, “I can’t even sit on my deck . . . We’re not sleeping.” Last weekend, in Wilkes-Barre, police responded to 654 calls—40 percent involving firework and noise complaints.

In Hazleton, the police chief calls Sunday “the new Friday.” On a recent Sunday, for example, five officers responded to 78 calls on the second shift. Despite 185 weekend complaints about fireworks and noise, though, the police cited only four people because the evidence was gone when they arrived. “I feel for the citizens and their families. It’s just that the laws are stacked against us,” the mayor told the Standard-Speaker. “We have to catch them in the act.”

Months of pandemic restrictions, mass unemployment, cancelled summer events, and a national climate of disorder doubtless fuel the unruly behavior—and the problem isn’t confined to Pennsylvania’s borders. The fireworks erupting in New York City, it turns out, largely stem from the Commonwealth’s law. According to the New York Times, many New Yorkers travel to Pennsylvania stores, via Interstates 80 or 78, to purchase illegal aerial fireworks. “Entrepreneurs are buying fireworks in bulk, advertising them through social media accounts, with some people ultimately illegally selling the products out of cars in New York neighborhoods,” the Times reported. As one Poconos-region owners of a fireworks store put it: “The past few weeks it’s been like the day before the Fourth of July every day.”

Widespread public anger has inspired a bipartisan legislative response in Pennsylvania. Last week, in a 48-2 vote, the state senate approved a measure—crafted by Republican Pat Browne—that would permit larger municipalities, such as Scranton and Allentown, to prohibit the use of fireworks. The proposal excludes smaller communities like Hazleton, however, where the problem is just as bad, if not worse. Meantime, Democratic state senator Judy Schwank is circulating another proposal that would rescind the 2017 law, though giving up tax revenue from fireworks is a longshot in a state facing a challenging fiscal future.

For now, Pennsylvania’s summer of fireworks mayhem continues.

Photo: SKatzenberger/iStock

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