Anyone out to buy fireworks has to deal with more than just figuring out how big to go on the Fourth. A hodge-podge of rules governing the sale and use of consumer fireworks in the United States means you have to find out first if it's even legal to posses or use them in your state. This quickly gets complicated. Take Pennsylvania. Many people drive from New Jersey and Massachusetts (where they are illegal to possess or sell) to the Keystone State to buy fireworks. But the Pennsylvanian vendors will only sell the big stuff to you if you have an out-of-state ID. The sellers there don't care what state your ID is from, as long as it isn't Pennsylvania.
In Ohio, you can buy them but you can't use them. In fact, you can buy nearly any type of consumer firework legally, including exploding aerial shells, but you have to sign a paper promising to take them out of the state within 48 hours of purchase.
Pennsylvania and Ohio's rules are straightforward compared to those in Florida. In the Sunshine State, the law prohibits any fireworks that flies through the air or explodes. Firecrackers, mortar-fired shells, and sky rockets are not allowed for recreational use. But the state also says that if you use airburst fireworks to scare away birds from farms or fish hatcheries, then the fireworks are legal.
At many Florida fireworks stores, buyers simply sign a form promising that the fireworks will only be used for agricultural purposes. Given the volume of aerial fireworks sold in Florida, there must be damn few birds bothering the farmers.
Fireworks penalties on the books range from mild to severe. In Massachusetts, for example, there is a complete and utter ban on fireworks of any kind (the law prohibits any article "designed to produce a visible or audible effect by combustion, explosion, deflagration, or detonation," so even cap guns are out) But if you ignore the law, the penalties for getting caught appear to be relatively modest, calling for fines between $10 and $100 with no provision for going to jail.
Flouting the law in New Jersey, California, or Ohio is a much more serious matter. First-time fireworks violators in these states can be punished by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. A second offense in Ohio is a fifth-degree felony, potentially punishable by a prison term of up to one year.
And without doubt, the police do charge fireworks law violators. Remember Gilbert Arenas, the former Washington Wizards NBA star? Two years ago he was pulled over in Los Angeles with a relatively modest cache of not-legal-in-California aerial fireworks in the back of his pickup truck. He was charged with misdemeanor fireworks possession. Ultimately his lawyer cut a deal with prosecutors to get probation and 10 days of community service instead of jail. He also wound up paying over $41,000 in fines.
So what should you do? Here's our state-by-state cheat sheet:
1. If you are in Delaware, Massachusetts, or New Jersey, stop now – no fireworks for you.
2. If you are an Illinoisan, Iowan, Ohioan, Vermonter, then sparklers, snakes, and party poppers are allowed, but that's about it.
2. If you want to celebrate in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, or Washington, D.C., only use fireworks that don't leave the ground. So, cones and fountains are generally okay but Roman candles are not.
3. In any other state, most (but often not all) consumer fireworks are allowed. There are lots of exceptions. In places experiencing severe drought such as California, Oregon, and Washington State are this year, local fire authorities have banned all fireworks in many locations. Also, there are often local regulations in place that are stricter than the state ones, so it's important to figure out what's locally legal and what's not. A call to your local fire department can help with that.
4. Rules change quickly, so seek out up-to-date information. Visit americanpyro.com for a state-by-state list of rules.