Staff Columnist

Calling the cops on your neighbors is an American tradition

But it doesn't have to be. Iowa politicians should stop trying to make stuff illegal.

A pile of confiscated fireworks at the Cedar Rapids Fire Department on June 28, 2016, before consumer fireworks were leg
A pile of confiscated fireworks at the Cedar Rapids Fire Department on June 28, 2016, before consumer fireworks were legalized in Iowa. (Liz Zabel/The Gazette)

Pressed by current events and mass protests, Americans are radically rethinking the role of law enforcement, and even of laws themselves.

Or so I thought. Then Independence Day happened.

On a day meant to celebrate our freedoms, a few Iowans were clamoring for fewer. Firework disturbances are up this year, according to anecdotal reports and police calls for service in a few communities. Some say that’s a good enough reason to make fireworks illegal again, or at least send out a lot of police to enforce local ordinances.

It is not wealthy people in towns with big lawns and small police departments who suffer most from enforcement of this or any other law. It’s not them who will have their lives turned upside down by a $625 ticket.

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In 2017, the Iowa Legislature passed a bill to legalize the sale of consumer fireworks, restricted to two time spans each year around July 4 and New Year’s Day. Since then, local governments have imposed restrictions on where fireworks can be sold, or outright banned their use like in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.

Many police departments say they prioritize education over enforcement, but some still are handing out citations, which carry a required court appearance and a fine of up to $625. In a Gazette news article published before the holiday, representatives from the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids police departments encouraged citizens to call police to report illegal fireworks.

At the state level, the issue is starkly partisan, with Democrats calling to crack down on revelers.

Democratic State Sen. Claire Celsi posted on Twitter to ask constituents to call Republican State Sen. Jake Chapman, who led the legislative effort to legalize fireworks in Iowa. The progressive website Blog for Iowa channeled Dr. Suess, calling Chapman “The Man Who Stole The Fourth of July.”

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“Chapman tried to get a law passed in the 2019 session which would do away with all local ordinances regulating the use of fireworks. He wasn’t successful. But it turns out that didn’t matter. Once able to buy fireworks, people were going to use them — local ban or not,” blogger Tom Gilsenan wrote.

Indeed, it didn’t matter. Indeed, it’s not clear how much making firework sales illegal again would matter either.

The apparent uptick in consumer fireworks use this year is a national phenomenon. Some observers in other states attribute it to people being cooped up and community fireworks displays being canceled up due to the coronavirus pandemic.

States without legal sales have not been spared from the booms and bangs. New York and California, which outlaw everything except sparkling devices, saw a huge number of complaints, even drawing responses from their governors.

Obviously, consumer explosives represent a petty and trivial freedom compared to the demands of Black Lives Matter protesters. But an underlying problem is politicians and some citizens whose instinct is to make stuff illegal and send out police to enforce it.

It is not wealthy people in towns with big lawns and small police departments who suffer most from enforcement of this or any other law. It’s not them who will have their lives turned upside down by a $625 ticket.

The recent progress toward regulating police conduct and re-imagining law enforcement on a fundamental level is real, and credit is due to the protesters. But as we saw on July 4, the political fight against over-policing is not nearly won.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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