Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and PennLive/Patriot-News. Sign up for our free weekly newsletter.
HARRISBURG — In July 1939, Pennsylvania Gov. Arthur James declared victory in the war on fireworks.
Just months earlier, he had signed a law that effectively banned ordinary Pennsylvanians from purchasing or using firecrackers, Roman candles, and other explosives that for years injured or killed people across the state.
“Everyone discovered that because of this new law they can have an even better time free from customary worries,” James said shortly after Independence Day that year, according to a newspaper report.
This July Fourth weekend, three years after the state lifted its ban on fireworks, many across the state are harking back to days of peace and quiet. Sales of fireworks amid the coronavirus pandemic are booming, and so are complaints about nightly amateur pyrotechnic displays.
But the likelihood of the legislature reinstating a ban — or at least giving cities and towns the right to do it — comes down to one thing: cash.
That was the impetus for making them legal in the first place, when, in 2017, lawmakers quietly lifted the ban as part of a revenue-raising package that brought an end to a protracted budget battle with Gov. Tom Wolf.
Now, lawmakers are considering a proposal that would allow certain municipalities to prohibit residents from setting off fireworks. But with the state’s finances still reeling from coronavirus-caused shutdowns and closures, a return to prohibition seems unlikely.
“All of us know that something needs to be done, but we realize that because of the revenue, that is going to be an uphill battle,” Rep. Mike Schlossberg (D., Lehigh) said.
The 2017 law levied a 12% tax on fireworks on top of the state’s 6% sales tax. Between the end of that year and mid-2019, that tax raised $8.2 million for the state. Preliminary estimates show it brought in $7.4 million more in fiscal year 2019-20 alone.
This year, sales of fireworks have boomed, as families with young children look for outdoor summer activities at home, according to a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Pyrotechnics Association.
And, at least anecdotally, people across Pennsylvania and the U.S. are reporting what seems like incessant fireworks, inspiring headlines including “What’s up with all these fireworks” and “So seriously, what’s up with the fireworks everywhere these days?”
In Philadelphia, police fielded more than 8,500 fireworks complaints between May 29 and June 29, while in York, city officials have created a special police unit to deal with the problem. Pittsburgh, too, has set up a task force to respond to complaints.
“Honestly, I blame it on corona,” Schlossberg said. “It had been bad previous years, but it’s nothing compared to this year. People are confined to their homes and they don’t know what to spend their money on so they buy fireworks.”
The appeal of limiting fireworks spans across partisan lines. This week, the state Senate voted 48-2 to adopt an amendment from Sen. Pat Browne (R., Lehigh) that would allow municipalities that meet a certain population threshold to prohibit the use of consumer fireworks. The bill is on hold as the General Assembly breaks for summer recess.
There are also lawmakers who want to go further.
Sen. Judy Schwank (D., Berks) plans to introduce legislation to repeal the 2017 fireworks law, writing in a memo seeking support from her colleagues, “Our police and fire departments officials say the complaints continue to pile up and law enforcement has proven to be futile at best.” Schlossberg and some of his Democratic colleagues will put forth their own bill with the same goal.
The original push to ban fireworks in Pennsylvania more than 80 years ago came largely in response to injuries and deaths caused by crudely made devices. One newspaper at the time called the ban a “powerful instrument for the protection of Pennsylvania’s children from fireworks injuries on this and all Fourths of July to come.”
While rarer, the U.S. still sees some fireworks-related deaths each year. In 2019, at least a dozen people died either because they misused fireworks or because the device malfunctioned, according to a report by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
That year, hospitals in the country treated 10,000 firework related injuries — 73% of which occurred in the days around the Fourth of July. Just last month, a man in Scranton was killed after a firework exploded while still on the ground.
Schlossberg said he understands that fireworks bring in much-needed revenue, but they have gotten out of control.
“My office has turned into an answering service for unemployment problems and fireworks complaints,” he said.
100% ESSENTIAL: Spotlight PA relies on funding from foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results. If you value this reporting, please give a gift today at spotlightpa.org/donate.