Fourth of July gets louder: Victory for the individual, but what about the commons?

Lighting firecrackers, for many Americans, is a visceral expression of individual freedom – one that has spread since 2000. Only three states with total bans on fireworks sales remain.

Ross D. Franklin/AP
Brian Herrman, a co-owner of Red Hot Fireworks in Phoenix, restocks shelves as sales of fireworks have been brisk at the store. Arizona, despite a drought, loosened its restrictions this year and allowed residents of the two most populated cities to set off fireworks around Independence Day.

When Georgia joined six other states to liberalize fireworks regulations in 2015, lawmakers were, in one way, heeding the words of John Adams, who urged Americans to forevermore celebrate the Declaration of Independence with “Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations.”

Lighting firecrackers, for many Americans, is a visceral expression of individual freedom – one that has spread since 2000. Only three states with total bans on fireworks sales remain – Massachusetts, Delaware, and New Jersey – down from 30.

But while more residents on Independence Day are celebrating the freedom to launch bottle rockets and blow up Matchbox cars in the front yard, new research suggests that, not surprisingly, liberalized fireworks laws have begun contributing to serious injury rates and hospital visits. The increase in emergency room visits, critics say, are raising stubborn questions about whether increased tax revenues through the sale of fireworks are, in fact, a reasonable trade-off for letting Americans go to town with explosions on the Fourth of July.

“There are 20,000 trips to emergency rooms across the country every July 4 … [y]et, for all our bragging, parading, and blowing ourselves up for freedom, we really don’t understand the concept,” writes Ian Gurvitz, a Hollywood writer and author of  “Hello, the Agent Lied.” “The Declaration of Independence begins with ‘we, the people’ not ‘I, the person’ … yet, our popular notion of freedom is based on the simplistic notion that we can all just do whatever we want without government interference.”

At the very least, the growth of the US fireworks industry into an $800 million a year behemoth adds nuance to how Roman candles correlate with the meaning of personal freedom on the republic's 240th birthday. The freedom to handle dangerous fireworks is a thorny issue that pits American folk culture and tradition against public safety concerns that impact society more broadly.

“It’s fitting that fireworks are such a big part of America’s Fourth of July celebrations,” writes Virginia Rohan, in The Record, a New Jersey newspaper. “Our country, after all, declared its freedom with a big bang, not a wimpy whimper.”

Yet restrictions on fireworks have been around since almost the birth of the country. Both New York City and Charleston, S.C., enacted fireworks bans in 1786, a decade after independence, in order to avoid urban conflagrations.

Supporters say rising awareness of the inherent risks have grown along with the availability of consumer fireworks. By some measures, it appears that overall injury rates have dropped when compared to steady increases in fireworks tonnage.

But the US saw a sharp uptick in injuries as fireworks restrictions were eased from Michigan to West Virginia last year. And researchers are beginning to find links between liberalized fireworks laws and more serious injuries. In 2006, 29 percent of fireworks accidents resulted in a hospital stay. That percentage climbed to 50 percent in 2012.

”We are seeing that by about two years after a [fireworks] law has weakened, the injury rate starts to noticeably increase,” John Myers, a lead author of one such study, tells CNN.

Those findings suggest that it “may be time for lawmakers to reassess this issue,” adds Dr. Charles Wood, in the same article.

A re-think on fireworks availability, to some, would hardly be a direct attack on American freedom.

“Declaring everyone free is not the same as declaring life a free-for-all,” adds Mr. Gurvitz. “Speed limits, stops signs, and traffic lights aren’t limits on our freedom to drive as fast as we want. They’re rules for the common good. Freedom is something we experience individually, and share collectively.”

Additionally, celebrating American ideals with pageantry and sparks may be less of a factor in fireworks growth than the fact that “doing dangerous stuff in your cousin’s backyard is an important element of American folk culture,” as Troy Patterson notes in Slate.

After all, 4 in 10 Americans could not name a single one of the five freedoms described in the First Amendment, according to a new First Amendment Center study.

Not knowing those “may not be the same as not knowing you have those core freedoms … [b]ut neither does it build confidence that as a nation we have a deep understanding of … what … is so fundamental to the unique American experience of self-governance,” writes Gene Policinski, the senior vice president.

He adds: “So in the spirit of our national July 4th holiday … [j]oin in the fireworks ... [a]nd repeat after me [the First Amendment’s freedoms]: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.”

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