The political arena is hotter than ever with fights raging over rights and freedoms and all that good American stuff. But one topic missing from these debates only gets the attention it deserves for about a week every year each July: the right to keep and bear fireworks. It’s a right heavily restricted in sixteen states and straight-up illegal in Massachusetts. Yes, Massachusetts, home of the Boston Tea Party, that act of defiance that sparked our patriotic tradition of blowing things up.
In the Pennsylvania Wilds — the romantic name a tourism agency gave to the hick region of the state where I reside — things go boom year-round. It could be someone detonating explosives to open up a strip mine, a truck backfiring, a firearm normal-firing, or someone celebrating making bail with a bottle rocket. But during Independence Day week — heck, it lasts all summer long — the whizzing, whistling, whirring, bang, pop, kaboom! sounds come on in full-force as the natives do their best to remind the Redcoats not to get any ideas…
Fireworks are as American as apple pie and not kissing people when you greet them. A merchant at one of my local fireworks emporiums (we have three) explains, “A guy was in here the other day and said his neighbor called the cops on him for setting off fireworks and the dispatcher was like…so?”
“What do people like about fireworks so much?” I ask the vendor, who, by the way, sleeps on a tiny cot inside his fireworks tent for ten consecutive nights in July to safeguard his wares.
“I think it’s a little bit of danger, the lights, the spectacle,” he says. “It draws a crowd — especially if you’re the one setting them off. It’s like, look what I did. It’s a big party.”
There are, of course, more practical uses for fireworks.
“Some guy said he had to get rid of a groundhog under his house so he bought a bunch of these,” the storekeeper says, running his hand over a pile of “Mammoth Smoke” sticks, which I’m told “just make a bunch of smoke.”
“Yeah, some other guy came in and said he was going to shoot a music video under a bridge and bought like ten of them,” another salesman chimes in.
I visit another fireworks store the next county over. It’s a brick-and-mortar place that’s open half the year, with special hours leading up to New Year’s Eve. When I show up on June 30, it’s busier than our local grocery store the day before Thanksgiving.
“Wow, it’s really crowded in here, huh?” I say to the proprietor, who is open-carrying a Glock on his hip.
“This isn’t bad,” he says. “In 2020, during Covid, we had people snaking through the parking lot, lined clear down the highway. We had to limit the number of people we could let in the store at one time, or no one could move.”
“What are some of your most popular items?”
“Roman candles and the bigger, 500-gram cakes.”
The man’s voice drifts off as he just repeats the word: “Bigger, bigger…”
“It really depends on personal preference,” his sister says. “There’s everything for everybody.”
I survey the scene: there’s a sweet-looking woman with her hair in a bun who is probably picking up sparklers for her grandkids. There’s a father loading a shopping cart with his two teenage sons. My mental note-taking is disrupted as I must slide out of the way of a dignified-looking gentleman in a suit and tie carrying a giant box of fireworks.
“What do you like about fireworks?” I ask a few folks. They stare at me a second and sort of frown, as if to say, “What do you mean, ‘Why do I like fireworks? That’s like asking, ‘Why do you like fair weather and free pizza?’”
“The party atmosphere,” says the father of two boys. “We have a Fourth of July picnic every year. My mom — this [crammed shopping cart] is all my mom. She likes her fireworks. She gives us the money and lets us pick.”
“Being around family and hanging out with all of them,” says son number one.
“I like the colors of the fireworks, too,” adds son number two.
Another group tells me fireworks are the essence of a celebration and this year will make a graduation party more festive.
I have always been a big fan of fireworks, but had never shopped for them per se. And I don’t want to. It’s way too hard to choose. The “Party Like It’s 1776” firework, with George Washington in sunglasses flashing deuces beneath two bald eagles, seems like a no-brainer, ‘til I realize it’s made by Winda Fireworks — in China. Then again, the Chinese invented fireworks, I think, and perhaps patriotic packaging will make them more sympathetic to our republic?
Oooh, but the “Wrath of the Beast,” with an image of what appears to be Shrek under demonic possession, is also tempting. So is “Rising Storm” with Revelation-style lighting strikes. And then there’s the “Dragon Slayer” with “maximum fire,” which I think should be self-explanatory at this point. Mini-tanks that “actually drive” and throw sparks bring back memories from my youth, and if I spend $140 more, I get a free Mystic Sundae!
I’m happy to say the right to keep and bear firearms is mostly alive and well, and the “rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air” will give proof through the night that our constitutional rights are still there (in most states, at least). The Pennsylvania legislature has actually made fireworks laws less restrictive in recent years.
“It used to be mortars were illegal,” my tent vendor tells me. “Now you can launch and sell mortars, which the people love. I know a lot of people would go out of state to get them and bring them back.”
That’s good news for us yinzers, but we still have work to do. No one should be forced to travel to “haven states” for safe and legal fireworks access. And I don’t think even Amazon employees get a stipend for doing so. It’s clear the time has come for Congress to codify the right to keep and bear fireworks into national law.