Fireworks bans won't make good neighbors

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On the Fourth of July, a bunch of my north Marion neighbors gathered at one of our homes to shoot off fireworks.

For a few hours straddling dusk, we sent rockets and mortars skyward. We ignited sparkling, spinning and popping stuff on the ground. There were lighter-bearing igniters and lawn-chair-loungers. The kids ran around doing what kids do on warm summer nights, but were kept at a safe distance. Directions were followed and everyone left with all of their fingers.

It was fun, and memorable. And it might not happen again.

Cedar Rapids, weeks after permitting the maximum legal leeway for use of fireworks under a law legalizing them in Iowa, is now poised to ban their use. It wouldn’t shock me if Marion follows its lead. After all, these cities are joined at the hip, cannon notwithstanding.

I share my own anecdote not as a rueful confession that I live in a neighborhood with low regard for dogs, veterans, air quality and the risk of thyroid conditions. I’d just like the record to show not all stories from the great fireworks experiment of 2017 are horror stories. It wasn’t all smoke and outrage.

Make no mistake, there were horror stories. Far too many people, given easy access to legal sales, developed pyrotechnics derangement syndrome. Their bombs burst in midair at all hours, for weeks, blowing past legal limits with little or no regard for consequences or the harm inflicted on neighbors. Police calls were legion. Carelessness led to injuries and fires.

Demands for a ban followed. But here’s the funny thing about prohibition:

It will no doubt put the kibosh on our neighborhood display. There’s probably not much interest in bringing folks together to break the law. Other law-followers also will opt out, I suspect.

As for the people who blatantly ignored even liberal limits set out in current ordinances and selfishly shrugged at the consequences of irresponsibility, they’ll also blatantly ignore prohibition. So the ban will be about as effective as a damp firecracker. Problems will persist.

Cedar Rapids also is proposing pushing sales to industrial areas. Swell. But at last report cars, trucks and other vehicles remain popular among fully mobile residents. Sales will remain brisk, and chances the Legislature will reopen the issue of legal sales next year amount to slim and none.

A ban won’t solve the problem, but it is probably good politics.

Reports of mayhem have been flowing into City Hall for weeks from angry residents. Council members are getting an earful and it’s an election year. They’re interested in keeping their seats, and a couple of them are hoping to be the next mayor. There’s simply no political upside to standing up for firecracker enthusiasts.

That doesn’t mean whiplash policymaking, steeped in outrage, is good policymaking. After just one season of legal fireworks, it would make more sense to first try vastly narrowing the window for legal use, cutting it from several weeks to a few days. Maybe even one day, Independence Day.

Sure, there’s a chance it leads to no improvement. But it’s an intermediate measure that preserves some legal leeway for non-jerks, at least until we see how year two unfolds. It would acknowledge the reality of legal sales while addressing the damage done by a weekslong onslaught.

Perhaps that smaller window could be paired with some innovative thinking on enforcement and penalties. Officials have months to work it out. The city has faced bigger challenges.

Unfortunately, we no longer do intermediate very well. These are all-or-nothing times. My side wins. Your side loses. Nothing else is acceptable. Truth is, arguments both for doing whatever I please and for banning whatever I loathe spring from the same impulse to have things our way. Nannies! Drunks!

Leaders who stroll into no man’s land to call for a compromise soon will rejoin the ranks of the nonelected. Columnists will find an inbox of unhappiness.

So the irresponsible have pushed us to swiftly embrace the unenforceable. I guess bans will make some of us feel better, until we’re soon reminded how the real issues we face — pervasive selfishness, lack of empathy and a lost sense of community — remain unscathed. They’re more damaging and maddening than any rocket barrage. And tough ordinances can’t make good neighbors.

But we will have thwarted the rocketeers of north Marion.

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