Turning the handle to access the back of his Ford Expedition, the guy in the Hawkeyes ball cap shoved aside a case of “Magnum Velocity Missiles” to make room for still more fireworks from “Pyro City Fireworks” in Sioux Falls, S.D.
He glanced at my Cornhuskers ball cap, and I looked admiringly at his crate of “Little Dynamite,” still in the shopping cart. As men are known to do – especially sports fans - we began our conversation by trading insults. “You’re going to get your butt kicked in the Big 10,” he said. “Not by you,” I retorted, with a smirk.
The Hawkeye fan and I soon found common ground. His Ford Expedition had an Iowa plate – so did mine. It turns out we were both from Sioux City. “Well,” he said, “maybe I’ll see you here next year. Let’s hope we don’t get arrested on the way home.” “Sure,” I replied, “but I’m just here for the sparklers.” Again, with a smirk.
It’s that time of year again – when Iowans make the annual trek across the border to Nebraska, South Dakota or Missouri – even Minnesota or Wisconsin – to purchase fireworks that are illegal for use in the state of Iowa. It’s ridiculous, really.
According to Gizmodo, the vast majority of states allow almost all consumer fireworks or so-called “safe and sane” fireworks. But Iowa is not one of them. Iowa is one of five states prohibiting fireworks other than “novelty items.” Novelty items include sparklers, toy snakes and cap pistols. Technically, it’s not illegal to possess most fireworks in Iowa, but it is illegal to use them.
If you’ve celebrated the Fourth of July in Iowa, legally, in your backyard, then you know it’s a sad, pitiful sight. The thin, black snakes lie on the ground like forgotten ashes while the kids make circular motions with sparklers, dancing around to create some excitement. Novelty items aren’t real fireworks. Even the kids are soon bored – until Uncle Ray shows up with the bottle rockets.
Historians report Iowa’s fireworks laws were initiated after a horrific fire nearly burned the great town of Spencer to the ground. No one died, but the fire began in the fireworks display of a downtown drugstore and quickly raged out of control due to hot summer temperatures, strong winds, poor building design and faulty fire-fighting equipment.
Ironically, reports indicate the “Great Spencer Fire of 1931” was started by – get this – a sparkler. Yes, a novelty item.
When I shared this tidbit with my son, he said, “I don’t understand why they outlawed fireworks because a fire was started by a sparkler. Wouldn’t it make more sense to outlaw sparklers?” he asked. My son is 11.
To add insult to injury, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reports the largest number of fireworks accidents were due to the use of sparklers. Yet in Iowa, you can buy a sparkler at the local grocery store. But not a smoke bomb or a bottle rocket. That would be dangerous and, as you know, the government must protect us from ourselves.
By the way, in 2009, the U.S. CPSC reported two deaths nationwide from fireworks. Neither death involved consumer fireworks, but professional displays. That same year, there were at least nine documented deaths at amusement parks. Perhaps the Iowa Legislature will soon outlaw amusement parks. So long, Adventureland. Goodbye, Arnold’s Park.
Make no mistake, fireworks can be dangerous if used improperly. Most accidents are caused by young males and unsupervised children. Alcohol is often a factor. But if used properly, fireworks are perfectly safe – and fun! Fireworks safety and fire-fighting laws and equipment have also improved radically since the Iowa fireworks law was put in place in 1938. The state of Iowa also loses millions each year as its residents drive to neighboring states to purchase fireworks.
Perhaps it’s time to change Iowa’s fireworks law. Other states have done so. Rhode Island recently passed legislation allowing consumer fireworks. So did Michigan, at least partly because neighboring states allowed fireworks, and they were sending money out of state.
It would make sense to allow Iowans to do what they’re already doing. Fireworks are safe and fun. They are good for the economy. And there’s another reason, this one from my son.
“Sparklers and snakes are lame,” he said. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Next week: Steve Warnstadt
Brent Hoffman is a former military officer and Pentagon 9/11 survivor. He served on the Sioux City Council and is the owner of Hoffman & Associates. Brent is a widower and the father of two children: Silas and Lydia.