I grew up in suburban St. Louis, and some of my favorite memories center around bottle rockets, firecrackers and other consumer fireworks. At the time they were (and still are) illegal there, but that didn’t stop my brother-in-law from taking me along with him to the fireworks stands literally a few yards across the border in Jefferson County. There beneath canvas tents near the Meramac River Black Cat bottle rockets, Thunder bomb firecrackers, Jumping Jacks and hundreds of other types of fireworks could be bought in unusual quantities like “bricks” and “grosses”. 144 bottle rockets taught me the meaning of the measure “gross” – something that the Kid marveled at when I mentioned that fact as he was learning his multiplication tables.
Fireworks resulted in my first run ins with the St. Louis County Police Department. I remember being about ten years old talking to a cop when a packet of a dozen bottle rockets slipped from inside my shorts and fell onto the pavement. The cop didn’t hassle me for it; he didn’t even take them away. He just warned me to use common sense when shooting them.
Unfortunately that just wasn’t possible. Being an adolescent with fireworks means that everything that can be blown up, will be blown up. Model airplanes. Army men. Even a few unfortunate crayfish met their ends strapped to Thunder Bombs. There were even a few bottle rocket fights and crude attempts to build “super bombs” by combining several firecrackers together. Amazingly I made it through adolescence without losing a finger or an eye, and my lust for explosives waned as I became a teenager and found other, more shapely pursuits.
Now I’m a parent living in a state where fireworks are completely illegal. I didn’t miss them – until the Kid became an adolescent and saw the signs advertising fireworks along I-95. One, in downtown Wilmington Delaware, advertises a fireworks stand in Norritstown Pennsylvania forty miles away. In small lettering it notes “Fireworks are illegal in Delaware.” But get this, the type of fireworks being sold at the stand – Class C consumer fireworks – can be sold in Pennsylvania but not purchased by PA residents.
I discovered this over the weekend when the Kid nagged the Wife enough to compel me to drive the family across the Delaware-Pennsylvania border to a small fireworks stand. The windowless shop was in a converted gas station, and a sign hung outside saying that no fireworks could be sold to PA residents, and New Jersey residents needed a valid fireworks permit. No mention of Delaware. I went to the entrance, opened the door and was immediately confronted by a security guard demanding ID. I handed him my license and asked about the fireworks laws. “Is this driver’s license legit? You’ll be in trouble if it turns out you’re from Pennsylvania.” I’m forty-one years old. I haven’t had a fake ID of any sort since I was a teenager (and I was too scared to use it.) While I browsed the small cinder block walled shop my licence was scrutinized and eventually passed back to me.
There were several aisles of rockets, fountains, and fireworks of various types. Prepackaged displays running hundreds of dollars were obviously the big seller, and they took up about a quarter of shelf space. But on a less prominent shelf I found bricks of Thunder Bombs and my heart melted. The packaging hadn’t changed, and as I picked one up I remembered the joy of being a ten year old with a brick of firecrackers. It wasn’t the excitement of blowing them up; it was simply possessing a brick of firecrackers in my hands. The explosive potential of thousands of firecrackers was better than actually firing them off.
I didn’t buy much - just some sparklers, jumping jacks and smoke bombs for the Kid – Thunder Bombs and a gross of bottle rockets for me. As I drove home I realized that I picked a woman who is very much like me. After all the Wife encouraged me to break the law by getting fireworks to shoot in Delaware. She’s a smart woman and knows how to play me almost as well as Barack Obama plays the media.
Being a doctor she knew that ER’s in the country would be filled with injuries caused by fireworks. But like me she felt that it wasn’t the Government’s job to protect people from their own stupidity - especially in Delaware. Delaware is after all a state where motorcycle helmets are not required to be worn. They are required to be on the motorcycle but not the rider’s head. Delaware is also one of two states in the Union without usury limits – which is why nearly all credit card banks have a presence here. In Delaware you can legally get yourself indebted at interest rates that would embarrass the mob. Delaware also has relatively liberal (for the region) open carry and conceal carry laws regarding handguns.
So you can feel the breeze in your hair while riding the motorcycle you bought with the 99% per month interest rate loan and packing a gun to protect yourself from repo squads – but your kids can’t play with sparklers in your backyard. And don’t even think about lighting up a cigarette at a bar (smoking in public places is also illegal).
I quit smoking 12 years ago because I got tired of being a slave to cigarettes – not because of the Surgeon General’s warnings or the fact that smoking was banned in public places. I’ve worn a seat belt since Driver’s Ed at the age of 15 not because “you click-it or ticket” but because it helps me stay in control of the vehicle. I quit drinking not because it was illegal (it’s not) or because it was bad for me; I quit drinking because I loved my family more than I loved the booze and I was given a choice between the two by the Wife.
There’s a place for law and order in our society, and there is also a place for Society in our lives. But Society stops at my property line or at least Society should have a damn good reason for crossing that line. Unfortunately all too often purveyors of the Nanny state want to erase that line completely, and do so “for my own good.”
The problem with that is that is two fold. First how can the State claim to know me better than I do? What information does the State have access to that I or my family do not? In order for the State to know what’s best “for my own good” it has to know what that good is – and aside from some very limited demographic information (how much taxes I pay, where I live) it doesn’t have a clue about my situation.
The second problem is that the tools of the Nanny state – laws – are not fine-grained enough to take my situation in account. Laws are blunt instruments that hammer individuals regardless of their situations; extenuating circumstances may come in to play in a court of law but not during the initial phases of the justice system. This is the primary reason why I cannot in good conscience outlaw abortion even though I believe it is murder. By outlawing the practice we apply a blunt tool to what is a unique and personal situation. Yes there will be women who have abortions the way I hit the drive-thru, but by crafting a law to stop them, we risk damaging an innocent woman whose circumstances aren’t foreseen by the law. In my opinion it is better to protect the latter by allowing the egregious conduct of the former – at least when it comes to the law (I’m all for other extra-legal methods of dealing with them).
There are good reasons for laws banning fireworks such as in areas where sparks could start fires and damage property. However if the primary reason is to protect me from myself – or my children from my own failure as a parent – then a line has been crossed. It’s a fine line, but it’s there – and the State needs to respect it.
UPDATE: Here’s another fireworks story I wrote 2 years earlier.