Pulling the fuse on illegal Fourth of July fireworks

While the annual roar of legal fireworks displays once again will be heard throughout the land on the Fourth of July, as big bite has been taken out of the usual profusion of illegal firecrackers, law enforcement officials say.

This is despite what continues to be a stream of so-called "supercrackers" exploding in big cities from time to time. Among them is the Super M-80, a class B explosive equal to one-eighth of a stick of dynamite and thought to be shipped in illegally from the People's Republic of China.

These steps have helped avert a firecracker stampede:

* The arrests last year of about 20 makers of illegal fireworks by the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms has dramatically cut back supplies, says Nick Angel, special agent in cahrge of the bureau's New York office.

* US Customs officials in the past few months have seized a number of illegally imported shipments of fireworks.

* Here in New York, which often leads the nation in illegal fireworks sales, local police last week confiscated 81 cases of class D firecrackers, which are less powerful than class B. These cases would have had a "street value" of between $50,000 and $75,000, police spokesmen say.

"That's hurting them [illegal fireworks sellers]" says detective Jack Murphy of the New York City Police Department. "And even in my own neighborhood, in Elmhurst, Queens, I haven't heard as many firecrackers go off as in past years."

Meanwhile, truck shipments of fireworks that may be legally sold in one state , such as South Carolina, make a beeline for other states, such as New York, which bans all firecrackers as well as the more colorful pyrotechnic displays. While the federal government has banned firecrackers containing more than 50 milligrams of explosive powder, 32 states permit firecrackers to be sold with less than this amount.

But in another positive development that affects states like New York, the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec have toughened their fireworks sales requirements.

Thus, US Customs officials in northern New York State are finding, according to spokesman Ann Lombardi, that illegal trafficking of fireworks from Canada is way down this year.

Hampering even greater success in curbing illegal fireworks is the patchwork of federal, state, and local laws, coupled with another problem: the continuing proliferating of illegal handguns which has, despite major arrests, diverted the attention of some of the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Bureau agents away from fireworks crackdowns.

Mr. Angel says bureau agents in New York are so busy trying to curb the illegal sales of firearms that they often have to "refer" fireworks cases they might otherwise have handled to local authorities.

"Canada has toughened up on their sales laws," Miss Lombardi said, "and fireworks are not as much of a problem," at the border. However, in the Buffalo area recently, she noted, five "small" caches were seized.

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