Florida’s ban on fireworks is widely considered to be absurd.
In order to buy fireworks in the Sunshine State — real fireworks that explode or shoot into the sky — you have to sign a form declaring you’ll use them to illuminate railroads or scare away birds.
Naturally, most Floridians who sign the form don’t use them for that. And each year, fireworks injure or kill Floridians or start fires that burn down their homes.
Now, state lawmakers are considering lifting the state’s 78-year-old ban, but for a few days only: Memorial Day, July 4, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
On Monday, a Senate committee unanimously approved Senate Bill 140, sponsored by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton. A similar bill, House Bill 65, is being considered Wednesday. If they pass, the bills wouldn’t become reality until next year, when the Legislature meets for its next annual session, which starts in January.
“I don’t think an additional amount of fireworks are going to be set off because of this,” Hutson said. “I think people are already doing it, so I’m just trying to make people not perjure themselves when they’re having a good time.”
But both firefighters and local governments have concerns.
Darrel Donatto, fire chief for the town of Palm Beach and president of the Florida Fire Chiefs’ Association, is against expanding the use of fireworks, fearing they will lead to even more injuries, deaths and fires.
“We feel we have a duty to protect the public to the greatest extent we can,” Donatto said. “We don’t think that fireworks, when not used by people who are qualified, or not used properly, are safe.”
Cities also fear that they won’t be able to enforce their own fireworks restrictions, which could lead to people shooting off fireworks near eagles’ nests or in city parks.
“Their concerns are, ‘It’s open season, baby,’” said Casey Cook, a lobbyist for the Florida League of Cities.
Hutson said that his bill will be amended to clarify that local governments can still ban fireworks.
The state’s fire marshal, who is also Florida’s chief financial officer, Jimmy Patronis, doesn’t yet have an opinion on the bills, spokesman Devin Galetta said. But Galetta noted that one of Patronis’ family members lost their home to a fire caused by fireworks.
“As the office takes a deep dive into this bill, we will work to ensure the safety of all Floridians,” Galetta said in an email.
What everyone seems to agree on is that the state’s ban, as it’s currently enforced, is silly.
Fireworks have been illegal in the state since 1941. Only products that don’t explode or shoot in the air, such as sparklers and noisemakers, are legal.
But you can still buy firecrackers, bottle rockets and honest-to-goodness fireworks at roadside stands and other places around the state. You just have to sign a form declaring — under penalty of perjury — that you’ll use them under a few exemptions spelled out in state law.
Those exemptions include for “solely and exclusively in frightening birds from agricultural works and fish hatcheries” and “by railroads or transportation agencies for signal purposes or illumination.”
The law hasn’t stopped Floridians from being hurt or killed each year, or from starting nearly 300 fires in the last two years, causing nearly $800,000 in damage, according to Patronis’ office.
On July 4 this year, two Broward County men died in separate incidents, and a Pompano Beach teen lost five fingers when a Roman candle exploded in his hand, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
A year earlier, a 16-year-old Tampa boy was killed when a mortar-style firework exploded in his hand.
Then there’s the risk of sparking a wildfire, a risk made apparent by the wildfires sweeping California each year. Nearly half of Florida is forested, and fireworks cause 16,900 outdoor and other fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating deaths and damage from fires.
“This is one of those loopholes that’s been open for far too long,” said Rep. Ana Maria Rodriguez, R-Miami, who is sponsoring the House bill. “Why not close this loophole and make it legal?”
She said that clarifying the law and making fireworks legal on just a few days per year would make clear that fireworks are illegal the rest of the year.
“I think it’ll have the counter effect, because it’ll essentially put people on notice that you can’t use these devices on days that aren’t authorized,” Rodriguez said.
Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola, has filed another bill, House Bill 6015, that would repeal the ban on fireworks outright.
But Andrade acknowledged that his bill is so extreme that it’s “irresponsible,” and he doesn’t expect it to pass. Instead, he said he filed it just to generate a conversation about the absurdity of the state’s current laws.
“I sincerely doubt the vast majority of Floridians are buying fireworks for agricultural purposes or for water fowl,” Andrade said. “We’re putting Floridians in an untenable position, and kind of forcing Floridians to lie in the process.”
Contact Lawrence Mower firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @lmower3