Fireworks doom was just hype

Adam Sullivan is a writer, activist and communications adviser in Iowa City.
Adam Sullivan is a writer, activist and communications adviser in Iowa City.

Independence Day has passed and the sky hasn’t fallen — nor been blown open by black powder.

I spent the holiday in Iowa City, where the City Council last month updated its fireworks ordinance to ban the explosives Iowans are now allowed to purchase. Despite the ban, there seemed to be plenty of amateur fireworks in use.

I happened to witness one fireworks-related police encounter. I was, um, watching neighborhood kids launch consumer-grade mortar shells on a dead-end street, populated mostly with students and a few young professionals.

After five or six big bangs over the course of an hour just around dusk, a bicycle officer emerged from a vacant lot to tell the petty criminals to pack up their contraband.

In all, Iowa City police say they have received more than 400 fireworks complaints since sales became legal this summer, compared to just 32 calls the same time last year.

Local authorities deserve some credit for prioritizing education over penalization, but it’s unfortunate any resources were spent policing fireworks in a community where alcohol-related violence and sexual misconduct are much more likely to inflict harm.

I suspect Iowans are releasing some pent-up demand and use will subside as the novelty wears off. However, it’s extremely doubtful any municipal ban on fireworks will ever be very effective, because prohibition seldom is.


The use of fireworks raises some legitimate and often contentious questions about the balance between personal freedom and patriotic tradition, alongside public safety and noise pollution. Most Iowans probably agree government has a legitimate rationale for restricting fireworks in some ways — like by children, late at night, or in high-risk areas.

Yet some complaints are nothing more than planks on the old-fuddy-duddy platform. People who live near other people should know they don’t have an absolute right to quiet, as evidenced by automobiles, airplanes, lawn mowers, sporting events, festivals, playgrounds, and government-sponsored fireworks displays.

Many seem to be concerned about the effect of fireworks on military veterans with PTSD. However, none that I’ve read or heard from in Iowa identified themselves as veterans, so I asked John Thompson, a former Army captain and Iowa political organizer.

Thompson is a vocal supporter of fireworks freedom, veterans rights, and other Republican causes. He told me the idea that a large number of veterans suffer from the booms and bangs of consumer fireworks is fabricated.

“The victimization of veterans is harming veterans, the fireworks are not. The best way to help veterans is to treat them like normal people that have proved their courage,” Thompson said.

Of course there are legitimate risks to fireworks. Local news outlets have reported a few fireworks-related house fires and upticks in emergency room visits, but that’s anecdotal evidence, not comprehensive data for policy decisions.

Local leaders have already begun brainstorming ways to give their fireworks restrictions more teeth, even though there’s no evidence of a legitimate problem. It’s another reminder that the fuddy-duddy lobby remains powerful in local government.

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