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D.C.'s Road to a Risk-Free, Less Joyful Fourth

The federal government bans the most dangerous consumer fireworks, such as cherry bombs and M-80s.
The federal government bans the most dangerous consumer fireworks, such as cherry bombs and M-80s. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
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By Marc Fisher From Marc Fisher's Blog
Tuesday, June 3, 2008

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.

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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 "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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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.

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