The US state that bans sparklers but not guns

  • Published
Welcome to Delaware sign with sparkler in front

American firework laws may seem strict - but as the UK prepares for Bonfire Night, has the US got the right idea?

In Delaware, you don't need a licence to own a shotgun.

You don't need a permit to buy a shotgun or carry a shotgun.

If you're over 18, and you pass the background check, the state won't interfere with your shotgun.

Sparklers, however, are a different matter.

Guns v Sparklers

Unless you have a permit for a public display, it is illegal to sell or possess fireworks in Delaware.

That includes sparklers - which the law specifically mentions.

The maximum fine is $100. Last year, 17 people were arrested in Delaware for fireworks offences.

While the US constitution does uphold the right to bear arms, it doesn't uphold the right to bear roman candles.

Image caption,
The offices at Patriotic Fireworks in Maryland

In the US, firework laws vary from state to state, even town to town. Like Delaware, Massachusetts bans all consumer fireworks - including sparklers.

Illinois, Ohio, and Vermont ban everything but sparklers and novelty items. Other states ban anything that flies.

The laws mean firework stores are often found on state lines, so customers from one state can take advantage of laws in another.

Patriotic Fireworks is in Elkton, Maryland - six miles from the Delaware state line. It's a small, friendly store, found down a long, tree-lined track.

A pig-tailed dog called Princess Sofia says hello to customers. A sign on the door says: "Let freedom ring".

But they take the law seriously.

Firstly, they don't sell to people from Maryland. They could, but the state law is so complex, and so strict, it's not worth their time.

"I would have to dedicate a person to go round with each customer, to make sure they bought legal items," says owner April Frederici. "It's just easier not to."

They do sell to Delaware residents - "I can't be the world's policeman," says April - but every customer must sign a contract.

It states that fireworks will be used "in accordance with all state and local laws". It also says Patriotic will not be liable for any "accident or injury".

And when it comes to fireworks, accidents do happen. Just ask American football player Jason Pierre-Paul.

Warning: Graphic photo below

In 2015, Pierre-Paul celebrated Independence Day in his home town of Deerfield Beach, Florida. At the end of the night, he decided to set off one last firework.

He tried seven times to light the fuse. Then it exploded in his hand.

Pierre-Paul lost his index finger and the tip of his thumb. His middle finger was badly damaged.

He still plays football, returning with his hand wrapped in a club. In 2016, he became the face of a fireworks safety campaign.

"Jason Pierre-Paul is a great example of the dangers of fireworks," says Michael Chionchio, the assistant state fire marshal in Delaware.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Jason Pierre-Paul and his damaged hand

Michael and the state fire marshal's office are based on the edge of the state capital, Dover.

In the car park, a sign keeps tally of the number of fire deaths in Delaware. Last year: nine. This year: seven (six without a smoke detector).

Michael is proud of his state's fireworks law. "I can sum it up in a few words," he says. "Fireworks are unsafe."

In 2004, Republicans in the state legislature tried to legalise sparklers, but failed. This year, they are trying again.

The fire marshal opposes the change. Not only are sparklers a "gateway" to other fireworks, says Michael, but they are unsafe.

"A sparkler can burn up to 1,800 degrees (980 celsius)," he says.

Bonfire Night: A British tradition

  • Bonfire Night, also known as Guy Fawkes Night, takes place on 5 November every year
  • It marks the failure of an attempt in 1605 to blow up Parliament
  • Most communities hold bonfires and firework displays
  • Private displays - and sparklers - are also common

Michael leans across the wooden table and points to the Consumer Product Safety Commission's 2016 report on firework safety.

It says fireworks were involved in 11,100 injuries treated in US hospitals in 2016 (92% of victims were seen at the emergency department then released).

In the 30 days around 4 July, sparklers caused 900 injuries, with 400 of those in children aged 0-4.

"We can't consciously tell you that we accept fireworks and sparklers being legalised," says Michael.

"We just can't do that. We're fire marshals. We protect people from fires. We can't support something that will hurt somebody."

Although the constitution allows guns, the US has a safety-conscious streak. In the "land of the free", the following are banned:

Slowly, though, firework laws are being liberalised.

Since 2000, nine states have legalised sparklers - New Jersey was the most recent. Another seven states have relaxed laws on other fireworks.

Julie Heckman from the American Pyrotechnics Association says legalising fireworks makes them safer.

"Everyone celebrates their pride and patriotism on 4 July with backyard fireworks," she says.

"If fireworks are banned, people are just breaking the law. And where there was complete prohibition there was no safety message."

Like Michael Chionchio, she has statistics to make her case. The number of firework-related injuries is the same as in 1976 - 11,100.

But at the same time, the consumption of fireworks has increased massively. Pound for pound, says Julie, the injury rate has fallen "dramatically".

The association attributes the decline to better education and safer products. It also points out that other things are risky, too.

In 2016, it says baseball was linked to 10 times as many injuries as fireworks.

Peter Schwartzkopf is the Speaker of the Delaware House of Representatives, and was a policeman in the state for 25 years.

"I don't want you to think we're a bunch of prudes," he says.

"We have fireworks on 4 July in my town, Rehoboth. It's permitted, it's a fantastic show.

"It's not like we don't do fireworks. But it's mostly commercialised, done by companies that are experts."

While he says fireworks are "very dangerous", he "doesn't see that much harm in a sparkler". But he points out that Delaware has a "very strong fire marshal and fire company lobby".

Is it not strange that a place that allows firearms should ban fireworks?

"It's two separate things, but I'd love to trade you on that one," he says.

"I believe in the right to carry a gun and the right to protect yourself. But I think somewhere along the line we've gone way too far.

"They make guns out there that have no legitimate reason, other than to kill people in war. I'm on the side of tightening it up."

So why hasn't it been tightened up?

"It's a difficult process," he says. "And we have an extremely strong gun lobby in DC."

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