Fourth of July highlights Florida’s weird fireworks laws

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With the Fourth of July comes fireworks, as well as the weird Florida laws that govern the sales of bottle rockets and other consumer fireworks.

Fireworks are only sold legally in the Sunshine State for the purposes agricultural pest control — scaring birds from farms and fisheries.

Technically, consumer fireworks are illegal in Florida, says James Rosica of the Tampa Tribune, but nearly 60 years ago, the Legislature passed two exceptions — the only state in the United States to do so — allowing purchases by farms and fish hatcheries. One exception is to scare away birds; the other is to illuminate a stretch of railroad.

Now, to buy fireworks from those itinerant tents popping up all over Florida roadsides, simply sign a form saying the purchase is for an agricultural or other exemptions.

For years, fireworks retailers have used those forms to take advantage of a loophole in the law.

The Division of State Fire Marshal offers a guide for fireworks inspections, leaving local law enforcement and fire departments in charge of enforcement.

In addition, Florida courts have ruled that sellers do not have to make sure fireworks customers are using them to chase off geese of light up railway paths.

The head of the nation’s leading fireworks trade association — the American Pyrotechnics Association — is mystified by Florida’s unique tactic.

“There are superstores selling fireworks just to get rid of pests?” APA executive director Julie L. Heckman told the Tribune.

“With the expansion of consumer fireworks sales in Florida, there should not be a critter left alive there,” she added.

Pinellas and a handful of other counties have ordinances, such as banning the sale of projectile fireworks, which are more restrictive than Florida law.

However, state lawmakers have been slow to make any changes. Legislation introduced last session would have relaxed the rules on consumer fireworks, but the bills died in committee.

That is because the industry is “very happy with where things are at,” said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a sponsor of the Senate bill.

Having to sign a perfunctory exemption form, Brandes said the state forces Floridians “to commit fraud to buy anything other than a sparkler.”

Other bills, filed the year before, tried to go even further by having customers actually show an agricultural license first or simply repeal the agricultural exemptions.

Those measures also died in committee.

“It’s like the tip of an iceberg,” said state Rep. Mark Danish.

“If you try to change even one thing, you open the whole can of worms of whether fireworks should be legal or illegal in Florida,” added the Tampa Democrat, who sponsored the 2013 repeal bill. “And no one wants to open that can.”

One would think that fireworks companies have lobbied heavily to keep the status quo, but that is not necessarily the case.

Records from the National Institute on Money in State Politics show the industry has only spent about $60,000 in Florida state races over the past decade.

Three companies are registered lobbyists in Tallahassee: Tampa-based Galaxy Fireworks, Southern Comfort Fireworks of Alabama and Shelton Fireworks of Missouri.

Galaxy’s president, Sharon Hunnewell-Johnson, tells the Tribune that she is proud of the safety of her products, which exceed federal requirements.

Consumers must follow directions, use fireworks correctly and take responsibility, she added.

“As an industry, we’d like it to be a lot cleaner” about Florida’s fireworks laws, Hunnewell-Johnson said, but they also do not want to go out of business. “I have a joke that we should take the ‘fire’ out of our name and call it ‘fun works’ instead.”

It’s might be a little early to get a handle on this year’s sales, she said, but she noted that July 4th does fall on a Friday this year.

“I think the industry is planning for a good year,” Hunnewell-Johnson said.

Nationally, there were about 11,400 injuries and 8 deaths from fireworks in 2013, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, up from 8,700 injuries the year before.

Sixty-five percent of last year’s injuries took place in a 30-day period surrounding the Fourth of July, Rosica writes.

Most of the injuries resulted from modification of fireworks, improper handling or both.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.