Cedar Rapids looks before leaping on fireworks

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I figured legal fireworks would be the scorned snout house of summer amusement in the eyes of the Cedar Rapids City Council.

Turns out I was wrong.

Last week, council members voted 5-2 to conform to a new state law allowing the sale and use of consumer fireworks (firecrackers, bottle rockets, Roman candles, etc.) between June 1 and July 8. Fire Chief Mark English recommended a continued ban on firing fireworks, but a majority didn’t see how it could be enforced, especially with boom-booms being sold legally in the city.

As a public policy process, it left much to be desired. The council originally called a Wednesday special meeting on fireworks with barely 24 hours’ notice. That meeting was abruptly postponed and moved to Friday morning, on the doorstep of a three-day weekend. Not exactly a recipe for significant public input.

Officials blamed a tight timeline since the new law was signed on May 9. Truth is, however, there was every indication the bill would become law when it gained final legislative approval on April 18. The Marion City Council discussed its options at multiple public meetings.

But outcome-wise, I think Cedar Rapids got it right.

“We’ll see what happens and hopefully people will use common sense and show responsible behavior,” said Mayor Ron Corbett.

What a novel concept. Let’s see how Iowans handle a little more freedom before we march in to ban, curtail and penalize. Let’s see if critics’ predictions of fiery, drunken carnage are on the money or overwrought. Maybe folks will handle it better than expected. If not, tighten the reins.

Contrast Iowa’s second-largest city with its largest. The Des Moines City Council voted to allow fireworks use for just six hours on July Fourth. Cities across Iowa are wrestling with the issue, with some placing constraints on use and others limiting sales. Sales barriers likely run afoul of the new law. But, hey, why not light the fuse on a few lawsuits?

I’m glad the Legislature gave localities a measure of local control, for once. But it also matters how locals handle that control. Common sense and responsible behavior apply as much to governing as backyard pyrotechnics. Looking before leaping, or firing, makes sense.

In officials’ defense, it’s a divisive, emotional issue. Writing in favor of lifting the ban has prompted more than a few readers to insist I’m an anti-veteran hater of pets and proponent of mayhem. Actually, I grew up in a small town where fireworks use was common. We survived, largely mayhem free. Iowa’s old ban was barely enforced. And, statistically speaking, we permit many activities far more dangerous than lighting off fireworks.

I get safety concerns. I’m less understanding of arguments, particularly from some legislative Democrats, insisting we must be saved from a bunch of drunk dimwits buying fireworks from “trashy” tents selling “velvet Elvises.” “I tell you what, we’ll be back to gravel roads. This is pathetic,” said Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, during debate in March. This must be Democrats’ rural outreach.

It’s snooty, like sniffing at our snouts. Can we, the rabble, handle a bit more liberty as we celebrate our independence? I say we can, but we’ll soon see.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com.

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