Scarp: Buy ’em, own ’em, but don’t light ’em up

Editor’s note: Mark Scarp is taking this week off. The following column was first published July 10, 2011. “Two years later,” Scarp said last week, “and we still have the same contradiction between state laws allowing fireworks to be sold and owned and city ordinances prohibiting their use. What a way to celebrate Independence Day, huh?”

In relative safety, it seems, the East Valley got through its first Fourth of July [Editor’s note: July 2011] with personal fireworks allowed to be sold but not ignited in most communities.

This wasn’t because new local ordinances banning them worked. In fact, it appears they hardly worked at all.

As Mike Sakal reported in Wednesday’s [Editor’s note: July 6, 2011] Tribune, there was little damage but plenty of complaints for local police to investigate, but with virtually no arrests. So a good number of violators were setting off personal fireworks uninhibited by the threat of police showing up.

We were in this situation, of course, because this year the Arizona Legislature ended a decades-old ban on the purchase and possession of personal fireworks in this state. The premise was that they can be handled safely by simply following the instructions.

(Certainly the use of hedge trimmers and lawnmowers in backyards would be less harmful if more of us read their instructions before using them, too, but I digress.)

The new law allowed cities and other localities to regulate or ban such fireworks being lighted within their boundaries, however. Most Valley cities, Mesa and Gilbert being qualified exceptions, responded with outright bans, meaning that while fireworks were for sale on virtually every busy street corner, you could do nothing with them when you got home except put them on a shelf and admire them.

Yeah, right.

The logic at area city halls probably went like this: We got along without personal fireworks just fine until this year, so why have them? Firefighters don’t like them, so why not just keep them out? (Of course, firefighters don’t like cigarette butts either, but that’s not going to make them go away.)

The answer is because the barn door has been open and the horse gone for some time. We don’t legally forbid ourselves and our children any number of traditional backyard family activities that are potentially dangerous, from birthday parties where we are voluntarily blindfolded and handed baseball bats to take wild, haphazard swings at piñatas to squirting too much lighter fluid on a barbecue flame.

To no one’s surprise, certainly not to the police and fire departments, what many East Valley residents did last weekend was to violate the law by setting their personal fireworks off anyway.

This means that East Valley residents in the main were able to worry little about being arrested while they handled personal fireworks at least as well as they do those piñata bats or cans of lighter fluid.

Now, what if the cities actually tried to address the fireworks issue realistically? That is, with the new state law letting fireworks entrepreneurs display their wares under tents all over town, why not pass a local law at least as detailed and reasonable as, well, as a parking-an-RV-on-your-property ordinance?

Many communities require that if you’re going to park a recreational vehicle on your property, that it be parked on concrete, asphalt or gravel. No dirt, no grass; nothing beneath a hot engine that might ignite.

How about an ordinance that lets people light small personal fireworks — children under the age of, say, 15 or 16 must be in the presence of an adult — only on such safe surfaces?

Such a law will also help keep people who know the cops are out on holiday fireworks patrol from taking their legally purchased but illegal-in-town trove of goodies to the one place no one wants them to be taken:

Out in the desert, where one tiny little boom-boom can create a huge, devastating, possibly deadly wildfire.

Certainly allowing the use of fireworks might lead to some abuse of them, including in a handful of cases the destruction of property or injury or death, just as allowing cars on the road does. But the way the current legal situation of buy-’em-’but-don’t-light-’em is set up, illegal use is fairly rampant. It’s enough to keep police busy on the Fourth of July weekend, while people light fireworks secretly — and perhaps even more dangerously — wherever they believe they can get away with it.

At least a legal fireworks framework will be one more people could follow, confident that as they participate in this time-honored way of celebrating their freedom, they wouldn’t be breaking the law.

Photo: Mark J. Scarp is a contributing columnist for the Tribune. Reach him at