By Rachel Herzog
Next Fourth of July, North Carolinians might not have to drive across the border to South Carolina or Tennessee to launch their own explosive fireworks display.
Currently, firework devices that light up on the ground are legal. North Carolina legislators are contemplating House Bill 367, which would legalize more powerful fireworks such as Roman candles, bottle rockets and any aerial devices, similar to the device that killed Morrisville resident Jack Shannon’s 3-year-old son, Michael, at a family reunion in Kentucky in 1991.
“Everyone wants to assume that nobody gets hurt,” Shannon said.
The device that killed Michael, a multiple-tube aerial device that tipped over while firing, was pulled from the market immediately after his death. Since then, Shannon and his family have continuously advocated against the legalization of fireworks.
“We tell Michael’s story,” Shannon said.
Most recently, they traveled to Iowa to urge legislators not to vote for a similar fireworks legalization bill, and they plan to engage in efforts in Raleigh.
“We’re not here to tell you what Iowa or anyone else should or shouldn’t do. We’re trying just to educate you,” Shannon said. “If we had known the dangers, we wouldn’t have been at a family function where fireworks were being used.”
But some legislators say legalization is the key to regulation and injury prevention. Safety advocates are expressing concern.
In the last two years, the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Health Care treated 42 people from all over the state, as well as from South Carolina and Virginia, for fireworks-related burns.
That number doesn’t include pro football player and N.C. State alumnus C.J. Wilson. He lost two fingers to a firework that exploded in his hand when he was celebrating this Fourth of July with family in Lincolnton. He recently announced that he would take time off from the NFL to recover from his injury, a hiatus that could be permanent.
Ernest Grant, the burn center’s outreach coordinator. said he expects the number of injuries to increase if bigger fireworks are legalized.
“I think people who would like to see the bill passed are thinking it will be a job-creation bill,” Grant said. “It really doesn’t create jobs. If it does, it’s going to create jobs for those of us in health care.”
Grant said accident victims like Wilson might have money to fall back on, but many North Carolinians don’t. A fireworks mishap could push them into a dependence role and force them to file for disability benefits instead of contributing to society, he said.
There’s also the issue of insurance costs.
“Most people don’t realize that most homeowners’ insurance doesn’t cover damages that may be done as a result of fireworks,” Grant said.
He said if the bill passes, he hopes to see a compromise in the form of a tax on the fireworks that would allow the state fire marshall to track injuries and property damage and fund consumer education.
“If we are going to expose the citizens of the state to this, they need to know how to properly use it,” he said.
Regulation through legalization
Bill sponsor Rep. Mark Brody (R-Monroe) said the state could decrease injuries with more regulations on fireworks, but that they first must be legalized.
“There is no effort to enforce the current laws,” Brody said. “If we’re not going to enforce the current laws, then we need to address how to make what we’re doing safer.”
The bill allows the Office of the State Fire Marshall to set the regulations on consumer fireworks.
“If we legalize it, the fire marshall’s office can start designing safety tips and safety procedures to allow a safer use of fireworks,” Brody said.
He said the proposed legislation is based on what Indiana did in 2006, when it legalized fireworks, then regulated what could be sold. By 2014, the fireworks injury rate was about half of what it was in 2006, according to a report from the Indiana State Department of Health.
“If you want to continue the current injury rate you have, then don’t support my bill,” Brody said. “If you want to bend that curve way down, you need to support it.”
The bill includes an opt-out provision for cities and communities, which allows them to make fireworks illegal through ordinance.
Because of the restrictions the law puts in place, Brody said, North Carolina won’t be like neighboring states with legal fireworks and high injury rates.
“North Carolina has the ability to start from scratch and develop the laws that it feels are necessary, kind of like Indiana did,” he said. “Once you have fireworks and make them legal without any restrictions, it’s real hard to reel it in, and that’s what’s happening in Tennessee and South Carolina.”
Fireworks opponent Shannon said the bill’s new regulations, which include restricting firework use to individuals age 18 and above, aren’t enough.
“If you look at how 35 or 40 percent of all the injuries are to kids 14 or under, how does that make a difference?” he said. “These are kids who are either bystanders or with people who think fireworks are safe and allow their children to use them, and that’s just a huge number.”[pullquote_left]Did you know NC Health News is a non-profit? Last year, a third of our funding came from readers. Please consider a donation today![/pullquote_left]Shannon said at least 30 percent of fireworks don’t pass the test administered each year by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which he used to work for. Not all products are tested, and some don’t even have a specification from the American Pyrotechnics Association.
“Bottle rockets are so unstable that they have never been able to write a standard that says, ‘This is how it should be able to perform,’” he said.
Shannon acknowledged that people will use fireworks no matter what the law is, but hopes he and his family have been able to educate people on their dangers.
“You’re still going to drive across state lines, you’re still going to buy fireworks,” he said. “But this year, when you use them, you’ll be much more cautious.”