Lowering the boom: Cedar Rapids should restrict, not ban fireworks

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As the smoke clears, emotions are running high and the numbers are sobering.

In Cedar Rapids, the first weeks of legal fireworks in nearly eight decades left behind a string of fires, several calls for emergency medical service, a sharp spike in requests for police assistance, four ambulance trips and a handful of emergency room visits. Seventeen retailers were caught selling fireworks without proper permits. And scores of residents fumed over neighbors who fired off pyrotechnics in defiance of city and state laws, or, at the very least, with little or no regard for the concerns of their fellow residents.

Petitions calling for a renewed ban on the use of fireworks in Cedar Rapids carry thousands of signatures. Residents attended this past week’s City Council Youth Services and Public Safety Subcommittee meeting to share stories of how fireworks shattered neighborhood peace for weeks.

Members of the City Council, which voted to permit the use of fireworks for the maximum number of weeks allowed under the new state law, swiftly are shifting gears. They plan to have a new series of fireworks regulations ready for council action by Aug. 22.

“I think we all expected an uptick, but no one expected that,” said Council member Pat Shey.

We supported lifting Iowa’s ban on the use of fireworks. But we’ve been dismayed and disappointed by how some have misused and abused new fireworks freedom carved out by the Iowa Legislature. As we opined recently, common sense and courtesy seem to have been the first casualties of Iowa’s initial legal fireworks barrage.

“I’m disappointed that we couldn’t be better neighbors,” said Council member Susie Weinacht. Agreed.

Shock, anger and awe aside, we still don’t believe prohibition is an effective policy.

For one thing, there’s little chance lawmakers will move anytime soon to drastically alter Iowa’s law allowing the legal sale of fireworks. Although local officials can craft ordinances addressing use, they are largely powerless under the law to restrict sales. So long as fireworks are readily available in Cedar Rapids and other communities, a ban on their use would be widely ignored and virtually unenforceable.

Shey said he expects the Cedar Rapids council to “severely restrict but not ban” fireworks. We see this as a more reasonable path.

At a minimum, we’d like to see the city dramatically reduce the number of days legal use is permitted, perhaps to three days before and three days after Independence Day. We see little reason to allow relentless fireworks use in a densely populated urban area for weeks on end.

But closing the use window will be as ineffective as prohibition without better enforcement.

Police Chief Wayne Jerman, who said police issued just seven fireworks citations in recent weeks, has suggested streamlining enforcement by allowing officers to issue municipal infractions, instead of making a formal criminal charge that must be forwarded to the county attorney for prosecution. He’d also like to see stiff fines and penalties for illegal use that could act as deterrents. These are proposals worth exploring.

Even if lawmakers are reluctant to significantly alter the law after one turbulent summer, we would urge them to consider giving local governments more say in the number and location of fireworks retailers within city limits and counties. Local officials have a better handle on local needs and conditions than lawmakers in Des Moines. Cedar Rapids officials have said they’ll explore zoning restrictions, although restrictions enacted in central Iowa remain the subject of court challenges by fireworks retailers.

It clearly makes sense to ask city councils and the Legislature for action. But the fate of legal fireworks in Iowa also is in the hands of those who support the new law and who enjoy using fireworks. Every reckless, illegal action, every instance where a sense of decency, empathy or common courtesy are selfishly detonated, the law’s footing becomes more precarious. Perhaps this first summer has been an overly exuberant anomaly. But if it’s not, and recklessness persists, prohibition may return. Public sentiment against fireworks will only grow.

We hope, given more time to deliberate and armed with experience gained over the last several weeks, our local leaders will come up with a balanced, workable and enforceable strategy. We still believe they can address the concerns of rattled residents while allowing limited, sensible use of fireworks by law-abiding citizens.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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