Is it too late to snip the fuse on fireworks?

Once you open Pandora’s box of booming missiles and colorful starbursts, it’s impossible to completely refasten the lid. But maybe we can agree it needs better hinges.

Iowa’s new fireworks freedom was hastily crafted by an “alpha male” Legislature wanting to show off its muscles. Quickly signed into law by then-Gov. Terry Branstad, the law allows Iowans to buy, use and sell fireworks from June 1 through July 8 and from Dec. 10 to Jan. 3.

Unlike previously discussed versions of legalization, the new rules began immediately.

State law allows any Iowan above the age of 18 to purchase and light a broad array of fireworks from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. — and even later closer to the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve holidays — within the two approved periods.

On the plus side — and contrary to plastic grocery bag bans, minimum wage ordinances and most other home-rule flexibility cast aside by the current General Assembly — lawmakers allowed local governments to have some say as to where and when fireworks could be used.

But with such short lead time, local residents and elected officials had little opportunity to enact regulations or plan enforcement efforts in time for the Fourth.

Fireworks once confiscated as contraband in Iowa are now legally used by residents over the age of 18. (Liz Zabel/The Gazette)
Fireworks once confiscated as contraband in Iowa are now legally used by residents over the age of 18. (Liz Zabel/The Gazette)

As for regulating sales — perhaps choosing to keep cheap explosives out of tightly-constructed and quick-burning Main Street structures or residential areas — let’s just say lawmakers’ haste has led to judicial red tape. Let’s hope court costs don’t outpace promised tax revenues.

While not completely against fireworks legalization, I know enough to be wary of it. Long before your neighbor’s dog or cat cowered under the bed, I warned pets and military veterans would shoulder the burden of exploding Chinese-stuffed cardboard and plastic in celebration of U.S. freedom.

I’ve talked about growing up in a state with legalized fireworks — about fond memories of bottle rocket wars and hand-launched Roman candles, as well as how community-based celebrations fizzled and died in the wake of private consumer displays and residents tired of constant noise.

A few rowdy Iowans generously have reminded me of other memories, like dropping strips of lit Black Cats from car windows or tossing a few in the direction of people and stray animals.

Yes, I’ve seen firsthand what an M-80 does to a bullfrog, and the nasty scars from misidentifying a Cherry Bomb as a smoke bomb.

I was present when a niece turned too quickly into the lit end of a “punk,” a stick used to light fireworks. The collision was less than a quarter inch from her eye, so we patched her up and continued with the “fun.”

I also watched as, year after year, more incorporated areas limited or banned the sale and use of fireworks or required paid permits, good for only a few hours on a few days. Eventually more destructive varieties were completely banned. Many on that list are now approved in Iowa.

The changes came on the heels of problems, some big and some small. They came alongside an acknowledgment that while some won’t respect rules, nearly everyone avoids financial liability. There’s echoes of it all in the debates in Iowa.

What’s the line between one person’s right to celebrate and another’s right to peace? When does concern about public safety tip the scale on personal liberty? These are not easy questions with easy answers, much less things lawmakers should have addressed with the equivalent of a Tim Allen grunt.

Like so many other Iowans, I’m hoping the novelty wears off. Hopefully, before next June (if not by December), local governments will have had time to enact some sensible regulation that’s routinely enforced. Because after reliving my youth through several mini Freedom Festival displays these past weeks, I’ve no desire to join my neighbors at the big finale.

The quiet of July 9 cannot come quickly enough. It will be a welcome change as we begin installing better hinges on the Legislature’s ill-crafted box.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on July 2, 2017. Photo credit: Liz Zabel/The Gazette