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Continued: At Capitol, debate crackles over legalizing fireworks

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: April 2, 2012 - 11:06 PM

The incendiary urge to shoot off rockets on warm summer nights remains alive in the land of snakes and sparklers.

Those illegal lakeside and back-yard displays often are procured in Wisconsin, and some Minnesota legislators want to change that. Bills awaiting floor action in both houses would legalize the sale and use of a wider range of consumer fireworks, including light-and-run rockets that leave the earth and go boom in the night.

Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove, the House sponsor, said the idea hit him as he watched kids and parents in Cottage Grove last July 4th.

"It just kind of dawned on me, OK, the sparklers and stuff are legal," he said. "But the ones the dad just shot off, those are illegal. Is he a bad guy? No -- these are something that are a part of our tradition. Why should we let all this money go to Wisconsin?"

In Minnesota, what are called "novelties" -- sparklers, snakes and small fizzy fountains -- were legalized in 2002. The bigger consumer fireworks, such as bottle rockets, firecrackers and multi-tube skyrockets that blossom at 150 feet, remain illegal, but stubbornly popular. In the Twin Cities area, Wisconsin's thriving border fireworks marketplace is often the source.

Those who deal with the aftermath of fireworks displays gone awry are solidly opposed. Police and fire chiefs associations, burn centers at Regions Hospital and Hennepin County Medical Center, Children's Hospitals and Clinics, the Academy of Ophthalmology, the American College of Emergency Physicians and the League of Minnesota Cities are among the dozens of groups lined up against the proposals.

"It's a recreational toy that does terrible, disastrous damage," Daniel Bernardi, a former deputy state fire marshal who represents Twin Cities burn centers, told a Senate committee.

Kreisel, who lost his legs while serving with the Minnesota National Guard in Iraq, responded during an interview on the House floor: "I doubt there's a person in this room that understands explosive injuries more than I do, right?" he said. " I'm comfortable passing this. I'm comfortable with trusting Minnesotans with the responsibility of using these responsibly."

The new bills would allow the sale and use of the full range of consumer fireworks, said Dan Peart of Ohio-based Phantom Fireworks, who testified on the Senate bill. Access to the giant rockets in municipal displays still would be limited to licensed experts.

Peart described the most popular consumer fireworks on the market today -- a 500-gram repeater that can send several rockets skyward. "It's the largest consumer firework allowable by law," Peart said. By lighting one fuse, he said, shells arc more than 100 feet and burst with a concussion that can be felt on the ground. "It's really quite impressive," he said.

The company's "Bada Bing Bada Boom" product promises "a good silver comet tail on the way up, ending in a terrific, round chrysanthemum break of red or green, with plenty of crackle."

Kreisel said the idea was his, not that of the fireworks industry. He said he believes adults can and should be allowed to use these larger fireworks safely and legally.

"My district's close to the border," he said. "A lot of people, when they buy them, they spend their money in Wisconsin, maybe fill up their tank of gas in Wisconsin, come back to Minnesota and shoot off the fireworks," he said. Use would be allowed only by those 18 and over and only on private property. Sales would be allowed both at permanent stores and at temporary roadside tents.

"There are too many people here that want to baby-sit and say, no, we really think we can't trust Minnesotans," Kriesel said. "They're going to start everything on fire, they're going to blow their hands and heads off. It's absurd. It's not fair. I trust Minnesotans."

Dan Winkel, the Andover fire chief and an official of the Minnesota Fire Chiefs Association is unmoved by Kriesel's arguments. He says fireworks have been responsible for several major grass fires in recent years, and the number of fireworks-related injuries tripled in the year after the 2002 law was passed. "We continue to oppose any and all expansion of fireworks, in that they will cause more injuries and fires that we will have to respond to," he told a Senate committee.

William Mohr, medical director of the Burn Center at Regions Hospital, said the number of burn injuries from fireworks is directly related to the availability of the product. "I don't think you can possibly put an economic value on either the catastrophic injury or mortality as a result of these devices," he told legislators.

"Eleven-year-old kids who lose their eye ... that's what I want you to think about, when you're trying to decide if we can get a little more income from surrounding states off fireworks sales."

Kriesel and Sen. Michael Jungbauer, R-East Bethel, are sponsors of the fireworks bills. Both bills have cleared committee hurdles, and the House version was moved into position for possible floor action this week. A spokeswoman for Gov. Mark Dayton said he is willing to consider the idea should the Legislature pass it.

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042

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