Lileks: Make fireworks legal? What a bang-up idea!

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 5, 2012 - 7:39 PM
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Citing “disasterous damage,” police, fire and medical personnel testified empathically against legalizing high-power fireworks.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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The Legislature is considering trusting us with fireworks again, which some fear would open the gates to complete societal devolution, like beer sold on Sunday in grocery stores. Opponents of legalized fireworks should admit that most people can handle them without problem. Supporters should admit that a few people will get burned. Everyone should wonder why current laws don't seem enforced. Either the cops are busy with serious idiocy on July 4th, or there's a tacit understanding that as long as you're not setting off something that produces a tsunami in Lake Calhoun, you get a pass.

I love fireworks, but I know that legalizing the good stuff will mean more injuries. When "non-aerial and non-explosive" fireworks were legalized after the urging of Jesse the Mad, injuries jumped more than 300 percent -- which means that people were burning themselves with cones. Cones. This is like losing an arm through improper use of a potato peeler -- it's possible, but it requires a remarkable degree of ineptitude. If you legalize fireworks, these people will probably buy rockets with suborbital capability and tie them to the cat's tail, but it's doubtful that a little thing like illegality dissuades them now.

What sort of fireworks are we talking about? There are three categories:

• Things that blow up: When I was a kid, we had M-80s, because that's what adults did in those days: Sell a kid an explosive so powerful it won't just take off a finger but drive it halfway into a tree trunk. Out at the farm, we used to throw cherry bombs in the river with such regularity the fish developed a genetic predisposition for tinnitus. We had Black Cats, of course, but these were just raw materials: Unroll them, heap the gunpowder, and create an explosion so enormous the hens laid nothing but runny-yolk eggs for a week. Absolute madness. Fun, but madness. It's a wonder I can wave at someone without them thinking I'm making an obscene gesture.

• Things that will put your eye out: Rockets that fly straight up and explode with a satisfying boom you can feel in your diaphragm, unless it tips over and flies right at your head, guaranteeing immortality on YouTube. Maybe you can watch it when the bandages come off. This category also includes those metal discs that spin up with an angry buzz, and are probably sold in other countries as Pest Bird Decapitators. I have no idea why they're still sold. It's like playing Frisbee with a rotary saw blade.

• Baby stuff: They blow sparks, lurch a few feet, then burst into flames. (Also called Chevy Volts.) They're illegal, because they move, but you know what? Chances are you can outrun one. They're about as dangerous as toads with bad gas.

Education is the key, of course. That's what we'll be told. Official Wisconsin websites on fireworks safety are full of good advice, in case anyone's thinking, "Are they safe to chew?" or "I lit it. Now what?" and pauses in the revelry to consult the Internet.

It all boils down to the classic injunctions: Place on a level surface. Light fuse. Get away. Presumably if it said, "Stick around and lean over" we'd do that, because the "get away" part isn't instinctive, and needs to be stressed. But if you lack the presence of mind to get away after you have lit the fuse, it's a matter of time before you do something else stupid, and that's what the argument comes down to: We should ban fireworks because a tiny minority are guaranteed to misuse them.

But you know what fireworks taught me? Fear. Also respect. There was also a certain amount of pride that came from handing dangerous things correctly. To this day I have that quiet confidence that comes from knowing what I would do if I came across a stick of dynamite with a fizzing fuse. (Get away.) But even if they are legalized, I probably won't buy the really big ones, because with age comes not just wisdom, but cheapness. Have you seen the price of the good stuff? It's less expensive just to have someone light off a string of ladyfingers 6 inches from your ear while you burn a $20 bill.

Here's an idea: Legalize one firework capable of creating a 6-foot crater. Call it Explodo Enormo and slap on a warning label: There's a 1-in-175-million chance it will blow up as intended. "I won't buy that," people will say. "Total waste of money." Fine: Call it the MegaMillions Bang-Thing. Sold!

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858

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