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Bang, Zoom Go The Fireworks--But Not In D.C.?

For generations of parents, the simple words "Watch it, you'll lose a finger," have sufficed to help kids playing with fireworks make it all the way to the Fifth of July without sacrificing any digits.

But that's not good enough for D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and some members of the D.C. Council, which will vote today on emergency legislation to ban all fireworks, even sparklers and other such so-called "safe and sane" pyrotechnics.

What's the emergency? Apparently someone in the mayor's office took a look at the calendar and realized that if a ban were to shut down the 90 or so fireworks stands that magically materialize around the District each June, it would have to be rushed into law pronto. So today's vote will be on an emergency basis, with no real chance for the public to have its say.

Leaving aside the willy-nilly fashion in which the mayor and council create phony emergencies to pass laws without going through the proper hoops, a fireworks ban makes little sense. The federal government already bans the really powerful cherry bombs, M-80s and other fireworks that can do major harm. And there does not appear to be a statistically valid difference in injury rates between states that ban all other fireworks and those that allow sparklers and the like.

Unquestionably, fireworks injuries do occur each year, clustered in these few weeks before the Fourth. But states that have studied the issue, as well as advocates for the fireworks industry, point out that as fireworks sales have soared nationwide, injuries have steadily declined.

The stories of injuries in the federal government's annual fireworks report are indeed painful: Fireworks do tip over, kids do hold on too long, people do stupid things. But the deaths and severe injuries that are reported tend to come from rather dramatic incidents, well removed from your standard sidewalk sparkler scenario.

Here's a typical account of a fireworks death from the federal report:

After setting off some fireworks outside his mobile home, a 37-year-old Iowa man went inside the home. According to the fire department, some of the exploded fireworks may have ignited piles of dried leaves near the home. The fire spread under the home, then engulfed it in flames. The victim was unable to escape and died inside the mobile home.

Tragic, but not the sort of thing that banning sparklers is likely to prevent.

The CDC reasonably says that the best way to assure that no fireworks injuries occur is to leave fireworks displays to the professionals. True enough, but the market also tells us that a great many Americans want to do their part to celebrate the Fourth by lighting the occasional sparkler. That simple pleasure is achieved by many millions without injury or death.

The handful of states that have imposed total bans on fireworks cannot claim to have eliminated or even sharply reduced injuries, and illegal sales of fireworks flourish in those states.

Federal studies conclude that merely educating the public about the dangers of fireworks is not sufficient to prevent injuries, and we all know instinctively that that is true: Some folks just love to act foolishly.

But what the D.C. Council might consider is that there is indeed in a free society a right to take small chances in exchange for fun or profit, and that we neither can nor should regulate our way out of every possible harm. The feds have it right: Ban the really powerful stuff that's far more likely to destroy property and cause injuries, and then leave it to the people to decide which is more valuable, a false sense of security or a few moments of wonder on a steamy July evening.

By Marc Fisher |  June 3, 2008; 7:45 AM ET
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Interesting that VA residents and I assume DC residents can go to PA or WV and buy bottle rockets, firecrackers, mortars, star sheels etc. All the things that are illegal in both jurisdictions. You used be able to buy them on the internet. Every year my bro and his neighbor spend about $1k on fireworks. He is a volunteer firefighter, as is my sis and BIL is paid battalion chief. I have been using illegal fireworks for years with no injuries. Bring back cherry bombs, M80s and ashcans!!!! Now! We can use Marc as the fireworks test dummy! Here Marc hold this cherry bomb in one fist and the M80 in another and see which one does more damage!

With no hands no more columns! A common good! Who is going to complain Marc's wife?

Posted by: Anonymous | June 3, 2008 8:24 AM

Would this be to make up for the possible loss of the handgun ban? The Council should just take the next 31 days off and quit creating emergencies or enacting legislation. Fireworks aren't high on the list of public safety threats in DC.

Posted by: Jubur | June 3, 2008 8:50 AM

Summer after summer in our humble uptown NW neighborhood, adults (and kids) seem to find hundreds of dollars to light up the sky. This certainly affects the family budget but I guess we have the freedom to screw up our personal finances...BAN them but not for safety's sake. Ban the lottery too, for that matter. Fireworks and the lottery have a lot in common.....

Posted by: FOX | June 3, 2008 8:51 AM

On July 4th, Ward 1 will once again be ablaze with amateur artillery. Thank god for law breakers.

Posted by: Mechanized Division | June 3, 2008 8:54 AM

Amen brother. Can't we have any fun at all anymore? Oh, the citizens are complaining? It's ONE NIGHT OUT OF THE YEAR!

Posted by: CapitalTruck | June 3, 2008 9:23 AM

How many times do I have to say it?

Posted by: Darwin | June 3, 2008 9:38 AM

Useless, useless waste ot taxpayer money. Good thing I'm a Virginia resident who is able to slip across the PA border and hit Phantom Fireworks for my firewrok jones.

Honestly, the "legal" stuff is for the kids to set off WITH PROPER PARENTAL SUPERVISION and the illegal stuff is for the parents to play with.

Gee, I grew up setting off all kinds of fireworks in my 38 years and somehow managed to keep all my digits without the government telling me what I could or couldn't set off. Matter of fact, so did all my friends and their friends. I think I know one person who injured themselves and he was from the Phillipines and living there when it happened.

Posted by: Sterling Park | June 3, 2008 9:45 AM

Gee, I grew up setting off all kinds of fireworks in my 38 years and somehow managed to keep all my digits without the government telling me what I could or couldn't set off.

Posted by: Sterling Park | June 3, 2008 9:45 AM

This is usually the case. Most people who use fireworks have not lost any fingers from lighting off fireworks.

Once they lose some fingers or an eye, they usually stop.

Posted by: Tom | June 3, 2008 9:51 AM

Fischer must not live in DC. I get tired of hiring fireworks from mid June - Sept. (or Halloween in some years). They should ban them, except, for the week of July 4.

Posted by: Mike | June 3, 2008 9:55 AM

I remember my pops driving us in to china town back in the early 80's to buy all sorts of pyrotechnics in little china town stores.

the china town of olde.

these things would explode, launch into space, and shoot off enough light to blind a kid.

The good old days.

Will the tv shows still be able to blow up a watermellon on the mall and light a kid in pajamas on fire?

Posted by: ballston dude | June 3, 2008 9:58 AM

insert scene from joe dirt:

Posted by: ballston dude | June 3, 2008 10:01 AM

My Dear Friend Charles,

I hope your headaches are getting better and your pidgeons mating is successful. Please give my regards to your wife, er, your cousin.

I found this on the iternets for you:

MELVINDALE, Mich. (AP) - A 27-year-old Lincoln Park woman died after a commercial-grade firework exploded in her face in a car wash parking lot as her children and her fiance looked on, police said.

Posted by: Alfred Russel Wallace | June 3, 2008 10:05 AM

Wait a minute, Marc. What happened to protecting the children, reasonable regulation, "it's worth it if it saves one life," all the other excuses for denying me, in another context, the right to be protect myself and family from the urban predators running wild in DC? It wouldn't be because you personally happen to like fireworks, is it? Unlike firearms? Isn't the life of a single child worth a total ban on fireworks imposed on everyone? How can you be so cruel, so callous toward the health and welfare of the most innocent among us, the poor little children (sob!) who will surely be slaughtered like sheep, the streets running red with their blood? You're obviously nothing more than a paid shill for the fireworks industry! (sarcasm off)

Posted by: Bob | June 3, 2008 10:11 AM

I was sitting in a bar in breck on july 2005 having a pbr and watching the sox game.

next to me was one of those 'old timers'

I asked him how many kids he thought would blow off a finger that day.

He holds up his left hand and says "1954" and he was missing half a digit.

Posted by: breckenridge | June 3, 2008 10:30 AM

I don't see why Fenty and the rest of the Council can think it can bypass democracy! The process to pass bans is in place for a reason! What shmucks.

Posted by: AvocadoInParadise | June 3, 2008 10:36 AM

In 1999 I had just moved to DC. I drove back from a BBQ at night on July 3 and as I turned onto my block my car was bombarded by teenagers throwing sparklers at it. My whole field of vision was lit up and we had to pull over in a panic to get them all off the car- we didn't know if some were in the car or where. they left slight marks int he paint.

The next year at around midnight I think July 5th or 6th, someone threw a squealing roman candle onto the roof of my porch at like 1am. Woke us up like our house was on-fire. That ruined part of that roof which leaked and had to be replaced for something like $600.

Kids setting off fireworks for fun is one thing, but from late June until mid July the kids use these as tools of vandalism. Again, I love fireworks and wouldn't complain if people used them as fireworks, but the definitely don't.

I would welcome the disappearance of fireworks so that maybe only 1/10th of them will come in illegally compared to what the teenagers have today.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 3, 2008 10:41 AM

This is why all liberals need to executed.
They think they know best. Sorry butt out of my life. I dont interfer with yours hoss!

Posted by: Anonymous | June 3, 2008 10:51 AM

While I appreciate all the comments from the wise MD and VA residents, I have to say if you lived here, you'd understand. Marc seems to forgot the incessant complaints on the local listserves and several DC Council hearings on fireworks over the past few years. These things go off during all hours of the night from mid-June through the summer and are often used to mask gunfire. I wish I had video of what our neighborhoods in Northeast look like particularly during the week of July 4th - closest thing I've ever seen to a war zone.

Posted by: PJ | June 3, 2008 10:56 AM

I really enjoy your columns, but I think you need to work the shoe leather and interview some residents in "transitional" or "ongoing gentrifying" neighborhoods. The whole fireworks issue is an annual debate that can be very heated from both sides. A generalization (but fairly accurate) is that newcomers to the neighborhood do not set off any fireworks. Hence, when there is opposition to use of them, it becomes another thorny issue in the gentrification tensions.

It should also be pointed out that fireworks, in these neighborhoods, begin nightly in June and continue past July 4th. Also, many igniters fail to remove their debris and remains that litter the sidewalks.

I am not trying to to take sides, but I am suggesting that the issue is not as simplistic as today's column suggests. The only reason I am taking the time to post this is because I do enjoy your columns and hope that you may find time in the next few weeks to dig a little deeper.

Posted by: Eckingtonian | June 3, 2008 10:59 AM

Isn't this a case of maybe they shold try to enforce the existing laws first. There have been times I thought i was viewing the Washington monument fireworks, and it was some guy that went to PA to get some spectacular stuff. the amount of illegal fireworks is crazy. If they enforced that part I would give them some credibility.

the real deal is the small fountains and stuff are a waste of money and even bore the small kids. If it does not pass, we will be in the parking lot doing the illegal stuff once again.

Posted by: robGreg | June 3, 2008 11:00 AM

Living in a densely populated block of row-houses in NE.... I heartily support the ban. Last year the view from my roof revealed a sight reminiscent of the views of Bagdad during Bush's first night of "Shock and Aw". The density and scale of the fireworks and bottle rockets, landing on our roofs and being set off in the streets next to our cars, left me scared rather than joyous at the celebration. Not only was I fearful for my property and my pets... but to cap the evening off a thirteen year old kid on our block was so caught up in the excitement that he retrieved an illegal handgun from his home and started firing it off in the street. So maybe this type of a ban seems silly to wealthy NW or suburban commentators' who live in orderly, well policed neighborhoods, but you might want to take a broader view on the effects that this has on all parts of the city before you make light of a needed ban. You can argue that it might go too far... sparklers for instance, but even bottle rockets can be dangerous and disturbing. Last year I retrieved more than 20 from my rooftop. Additionally, the display does not last just the night or even the weekend. Last year the quiet of our streets was disturbed for weeks following the event with nightly bottle rockets and explosions. Once again.... Maybe that would not be disturbing where you live, but in many portions of the district the presence of loud popping and small explosions summon up emotions closer to fear or terror of gun violence than celebration. The city budget and police force are not equipped to fully police all of our streets and should be commended for taking some measure to help. Until such time as everyone decides to spend more money to provide adequate security (do you want to volunteer to wear a flack vest and man the hose at my house) we should do what we can to dial things back and make it a safe and enjoyable experience for all of our residents.

So while I understand many of your sentiments... and honestly feel bad that some sweet little girl will be robbed of the memories of standing with her family, watching the fireworks, and holding sparklers...... I feel that it is well balanced to help alleviate the terror it brings to others of us who live in fear of the 4th.

Besides the local towns, the city and the Federal Government already expend huge amounts to bring us one of the most impressive fireworks events in the world.... Isn't that enough?

Posted by: anon | June 3, 2008 11:05 AM

The, "progressive"... overseers are only Pro-Choice on one issue.

EVERYTHING else ... whether it's fireworks, firearms, bike helmets, seat belts, smoking, saving for retirement or unemployment, lightbulbs, or even how your donuts are fried... the citizenry is considered grossly incompetent.

Posted by: gitarre | June 3, 2008 11:12 AM

What I don't understand is how city block after city block of low-income residents can spend a ridiculous sum of money on fireworks that are fired at all hours of the night -- night after night -- week after week, after the Fourth of July.

Marc, you really missed this one. I know of a row house in a not-so-nice area of NE that you and your family can move into for the week of the Fourth -- you really need seven nights listening to fireworks being fired all night long to get the full effect.

And then tell us how you and your family feel about the fireworks ban.

Posted by: Another anon | June 3, 2008 11:36 AM

To Another Anon

What do you mean low income????
Prices for houses in need of work are over $350,000! And most of NE is a nice neighborhood.

The problem is more about high population densities and lack of open space. As I said before.... what is acceptable on large, leafy suburban lawns (under close paerntal supervision) does not translate well to dense urban conditions. So if you really need to do your private firewoks display.... why not do it at your country house, or maybee on the beach in front of your place on the shore.

Posted by: anon | June 3, 2008 11:48 AM

I urge you or one of your paper's reporters to spend the fourth of July evening in the emergency room at Children's Hospital. I think you would be surprised at how many kids get hurt and how badly they are injured. At the very least, we ought to have more strict laws about what the kids can do--if an adult blows off their finger, it's their own fault, but not so with children.

Posted by: Brian | June 3, 2008 12:09 PM

How dare they take away our right to sue people who are trying to make a living off of our stupidity!!!

Where is that pant's judge when we need him?

Posted by: DC Voter | June 3, 2008 12:30 PM

So, Marc, did you read the article about the D.C. child protective services becoming too conservative and removing children willy-nilly since the Banita Jacks case?

I mean, since you blogged so heavily about how the social workers in that case were dead wrong, it would be nice if you could finally acknowledge that there is no perfect way to predict the future or for outsiders to determine how much risk the children are in. Moreover, in your arrogance about that case, you failed to acknowledge the damage and risk to children when they're removed.

I wrote many responses to your column point these things out, but maybe now that one of your WaPo colleagues has written an article about all this, you might reconsider your hard-line opinions.

Posted by: Ryan | June 3, 2008 1:15 PM

Alfred Russel Wallace said:

MELVINDALE, Mich. (AP) - A 27-year-old Lincoln Park woman died after a commercial-grade firework exploded in her face in a car wash parking lot as her children and her fiance looked on, police said.

this is a prime example of what happens when there is no LEGAL alternative. this was a tragic incident where the woman was lighting a high powered professional grade ariel repeater. the kind used by licensed professionals in very large displays. she obtained this through illegal means ina state which does not allow firework sales to it's own residents. this woman and her friends were having a party in the parking lot of where she worked. the firework was lit, and when she approached it to see if it was functioning properly it went off in her face.

this never should have happened, but it happened as a direct result of the fireworks laws in michigan. had she been able to legaly walk into a tent or a retailer and buy regulated safe consumer grade fireworks...this tragedy never would have happened.

she died because fireworks are banned in her state. so black market fireworks peddler sold her something way more powerfull than she would have found at the local phantom or black cat retail location.

if anyone here wanted access to a cake of that caliber we would need to attend schools and take all sorts of tests and get licensed by the state and the fed to even posses that cake, let alone set it off.

this case is a prime example of why fireworks SHOULD NOT be banned. provide safe, tested, legal alternatives for patriotic americans to celebrate our county's independance. don't leave then no option other than the unsafe black market items that they aren't qualified to use.

Posted by: common sense | June 3, 2008 1:16 PM

Marc you are really lucky you live in the bubble of upper northwest. Try living in Columbia Heights. From June to october, every afternoon after work the kids are shooting off fireworks and there is no quaint parental admonishment "you'll shoot your eyes out"--god only knows where the parents are as they are invisible. So how do kids living in section 8 have so much money to waste on fireworks?? I am thrilled with the ban. Maybe now I can enjoy my balcony in the evening without thinking I am in bagdad. I hope one day I am rich enough to be your neighbor in Forest Hills Marc.

Posted by: yeah for the ban! | June 3, 2008 1:20 PM

Graham introduced his Fireworks legislation last Fall. Why no one bothered to deal with the proposal before now is a good point.

I for one support the ban. As a DC resident I am sick and tired of having my neighborhood ablaze from mid-June through July and parts of August from early evening till 3 or 4 am.

All those rockets and other air borne fireworks drop their debris on our roofs, cars, porches, decks or shower us in the early evening with hot embers forcing us inside.

These items are a fire hazard and a danger and it is not for one night but for weeks.

I don't have a problem with sparklers. If parents want their kids to play with them and want to watch their kids catch on fire, its fine with me. Just don't go suing the city afterwards.

Posted by: Enough | June 3, 2008 1:32 PM


Ask your boss if he like fireworks in his neighborhood on the hill. See if his child crying all night because idiots shoot them off until SEPTEMBER. Ask him if the "festive" block party with thousands of dollars worth of booze and illegal fireworks is fun for him and his family. Ask him if his wooden home is safe.

You sound like a spoiled brat...Mommy, why can't I hold a sparkler...give me a break.

Posted by: Hill Resident | June 3, 2008 2:36 PM

From anon:
"So maybe this type of a ban seems silly to wealthy NW or suburban commentators' who live in orderly, well policed neighborhoods, but you might want to take a broader view on the effects that this has on all parts of the city before you make light of a needed ban."

As someone who lives in Southeast DC for three years, I can tell you that I had no problem with kids firing the ocassional fireworks between June and July 4th. I just got used to it. It is just a matter of knowing what are you getting yourself into before moving to a new area.

I also find a bit interesting the mention of behavior of some in Northeast or Columbia Heights as a reaons that a ban must be enacted. In fact has there not be a surge of police activity in pasts of Southeast and Northeast recently due to spikes in those areas? I hope that the reason for wanting to ban fireworks is not the densely-populated rowhouse and because those neighborhoods are majority African American and Latino.

You chose to live in a city, a densely populated area. Instead of banning fireworks, why not educate people on the proper use of fireworks. I am originally from Puerto Rico where for years the government has tried to ban fireworks. However, every New Years, improptu fireworks displays happen at midnight. I fear the same will happen in DC. A pointless ban to please martinets and busybodies at the expense of the others that will be easily circumvented and things will continue the way they were.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 3, 2008 3:11 PM

There is a ban on handguns, yet there are plenty on the street. There is also a ban on fireworks, but there will be plenty on the street. DC would be a very silly place if it was not so deadly.

Posted by: ntrlsol | June 3, 2008 3:17 PM

Hmmm, sales way up and injuries way down so we ought to lay off regulating them. You could say the same thing about guns Marc but you'd never do it.

Posted by: Stick | June 3, 2008 3:21 PM

My last comment here..... If people are doing activities on their own property that don't affect me... then I do not care. They are free to hurt themselves, their guests or their children. They are free to trash their lawns and set fire to their houses. My beef is that in a place where house lots are rarely wider than 25 feet... what are the chances that your bottle rocket is going to land in your yard? Now what the fireworks supporters contend is that they somehow have a right to spread burning garbage across public spaces and my personal property. So I agree... you should be able to keep your sparklers on your own property.... but somehow I would be wrong to toss burning garbage into your lawn, on your house, on your family.

We ban smoking in theatres... not because we care about what is in your lungs... but rather that you do not control where the smoke goes when you exhale.

As for choice... I do choose to live in a densely populated are.... and believe that if people wish to have large pyrotechnic displays... they should move to large pieces of land where their behavior only impacts them. That is the key to urban society... we need to respect each others privacy, well being, security, and happiness.... that is when it works. On my street that is the norm for 95% of us. We deserve some protection from the 5% who have never been taught to respect their neighbors, their surroundings or themselves. Passing a law won't make it go away.... but when truly flagrant examples of dangerous behavior take place, then our law enforcement officers will have the tools necessary to react.

Posted by: anon | June 3, 2008 3:39 PM

Marc, You clearly don't live in my neighborhood. Try coming down to the waterfront in SW on July 4th. The smoke is so thick that you can't see the real fireworks. Babies are terrified. There are unsupervised children and adolescents every 5 feet on the US Park Service land setting the darn things off, and these aren't little sparklers. It goes on for hours, and then continues through the summer.The trash the next day is unbelievable and disgraceful. Go ahead, DC Council, BAN them. Please.

Posted by: Southwest Resident | June 3, 2008 5:18 PM

Babies are terrified. Hilarious.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 3, 2008 7:17 PM

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Posted by: o2100slzsp | June 3, 2008 7:50 PM

Stupid liberals Dems they choose to live in a city and then moan and groan like a drag queen who just put a run a run in his $50 pantyhose about fireworks going off.

Your neighbors were there first. They have lighting off fireworks like that since before you were born in their neighborhood!

Fireworks, gun shots, mortar and artillary rounds etc dont bother my dogs at all. I am sorry if your little teacup dorkdoodle
is scared of everything. Selecting a real dog would have prevented that.

Dumb liberal white folk! Where can a same sex couple go for a little peace or piece in the city!

Out here in the burbs on our quarter acre lots we have the same problem with fireworks. Real dogs solve this problem.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 4, 2008 7:00 AM

Who needs fireworks? Just shoot your pistols in the air, like folks do in Houston, LA, and Detroit.

So a few bullets kill people when they come down. Big deal.

Posted by: Mike Licht | June 4, 2008 10:31 AM

It's not just kids. If those jack-ass hipsters and vegan-militia interns in Mount Pleasant shoot bottle rockets until 3 am again, I'm going to return fire. Pelt them with processed meat, or just call the damn DEA.

Posted by: DC | June 4, 2008 4:32 PM


Obviously you have never spent 4th of July (or the rest of July, or the end of June, or August) in Shaw. The fireworks are terrifying (many nights it sounds and looks like a war zone) and dangerous (fire hazard).

I understand that you have to fill your column and often take an unpopular position, apparently to provoke controversy.

That said, you either (i) don't have a clue regarding how detrimental fireworks can be with respect to quality of life in some poorer neighborhoods OR (ii) you are purposely ignoring that factor in order to be provactive and pander to your rich friends and neighbors.

You are welcome to come house sit for me on the 4th and I guarantee you would either see (and hear) the light.

Posted by: QuiFon | June 4, 2008 4:59 PM

Here we go again - the nanny state do-gooders pursuing their version of controlled utopia. Uptight, insecure people who just hate it when other people have fun. I could puke.

Posted by: Kevin | June 5, 2008 2:44 PM

Wow, I laugh at how people only use the parts that prove their point and not the whole story. First off, Mr. Fisher's article says that banning the big bombs is fine, but banning the sparklers is a little crazy. I agree.
Secondly, the Melvindale story, um did you read it? You used a story about woman who was drinking, didn't have a permit to be in that Car Wash shooting off fireworks and lighting a firework the size of a mortar round to substantiate your argument to ban sparklers. When did Americans lose the ability to thin for themselves?

Posted by: 1984 | June 23, 2008 12:58 PM

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