When it comes to Fourth of July fireworks, citizens of New York state have had it pretty rough. New York laws on fireworks haven’t changed since — get this — 1909. And New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Delaware have similar draconian laws despite more liberal laws sweeping much of the rest of the nation. What gives?
When it comes to the state of New York, Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, blames the Big Apple. “New York City, that was the primary concern,” she told Inverse. “They didn’t want people in the city to have access to fireworks, and I think the way the law was written was so that the counties had to opt in, provided that the bigger cities wouldn’t necessarily forced to have consumer fireworks.”
Currently, about half of the counties in the state have opted in, which makes it legal to buy and sell certain fireworks only around Independence Day and the December holidays.
Though it’s tempting to speculate that lawmakers want to keep fireworks away from New York City for security’s sake, the reasons are much more practical. “It’s more of having the safe distances to be able to use them,” Heckman says. “Downtown Manhattan really isn’t the appropriate place to use consumer fireworks.”
In the 1930s and 1940s, the U.S. banned fireworks outright because production was so badly regulated that people were essentially playing with bombs. In New York, a series of cases in the first half of the century explored the legal issues surrounding firework possession. Notably, a 1952 case forced the following ruling:
The Legislature has recognized that the unsupervised discharge of fireworks is so fraught with serious dangers that their possession or use, not in compliance with stringent requirements, has been made a crime. (Citing N.Y. Penal Law §1894-a)
Most other states had similar laws, and it wasn’t until the year 2000 that Connecticut made the bold move of legalizing sparklers and fountains. It wasn’t long before other states followed suit. Importantly, the number of fireworks-related injuries didn’t increase, at least according to the American Pyrotechnics Association. According to their analysis, the number actually dropped as state laws loosened up — they’re happy to credit improved products and safety education. The U.S. Consumer Product and Safety Commission’s latest fireworks report points out that there wasn’t a statistically significant trend in fireworks-related injuries treated in the emergency room from 1999 to 2014. (In an ironic twist, they also report that the supposedly benign sparklers cause 19 percent of injuries, second only to fireworks themselves, which cause 20 percent.)
The data is what the data is, but the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York is still freaking out, urging New Yorkers to “leave the fireworks to the professionals.”
So what finally convinced New York’s legislators to loosen up? The answer is simple: money.
“People are going to cross state lines, they’re going to buy fireworks, and they’re going to bring them back to their homes and backyards and celebrate the Fourth of July,” says Heckman. “So instead of all the revenue being spent in Pennsylvania, let’s have a piece of that pie ourselves.”