Regulations Make Us Free.

AuthorGlastris, Paul
PositionEditor's Note

Twenty-five years ago, in U.S. News & World Report, I wrote this:

The mildly dangerous tradition of setting off firecrackers on the Fourth of July thrives across America, despite well-meaning efforts to stamp it out. This week, local news outlets will no doubt feature horrifying stories of children who have lost fingers and eyes in accidents with cherry bombs, roman candles, and the like. But these cautionary tales are no match for the powerful childhood memories of parents, particularly fathers.

Ask a wide cut of American males about their boyhood exploits with firecrackers, and they will enthusiastically spin tales of controlled mayhem. Blowing up anthills. Tossing M-8os into storm sewers. Engaging in wars of bottle rockets. In a manic regard for safety, the typical dad will deny his child any number of pleasures he knew as a kid, like riding a bike without a helmet or sitting in a car's front seat. This caution evaporates around the Fourth, when millions of fathers bring home boxes of firecrackers and initiate their children into the pyrotechnic militia.

Firecrackers have a subversive appeal. Even the way they get purchased, in garish tents by the side of the highway on the exurban fringe, feels somehow illicit. Yet it is lawbreaking with popular support. In the states and municipalities where firecrackers are illegal, they are widely used anyway, with little interference from police. This spirit of communally sanctioned lawbreaking squares with the history of Independence Day festivities.

It was veterans of the Revolutionary War, covert fighters all, who began the tradition by firing their muskets during Fourth of July celebrations. Firing small arms remained a favorite form of revelry into the mid-19th century ... [That]gave way to the less hazardous practice of shooting off firecrackers when, after the Civil War, cheap Chinese firecrackers made it to America. They were noisy but relatively harmless. But in the early 20th century, American innovators developed varieties that were almost as lethal as dynamite. The ensuing carnage (even modest burns could result in untreatable infections) led the press to agitate for the abolition of firecrackers. Localities started outlawing them in 1908; statewide bans followed during the Depression. By the early 1950s, 28 states forbade the sale and use of consumer fireworks and, by the mid-'yos, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission was considering a nationwide prohibition.

That effort met...

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