Fireworks are mostly about responsibility

Published 8:55 am Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Column: Dave Churchill, Guest Column

The Austin Daily Herald had just gone to press when my wife stopped by my office to talk about our summer schedule. The mention of summer led me to remark that the Legislature was close to approving a bill that would make aerial fireworks legal in the state.

Dave Churchill

“That should fill the emergency rooms right up,” she snapped, concisely summarizing the viewpoint of the many people who are alarmed at the idea of firing up more fireworks.

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As a mother, a nurse and the family’s chief safety officer, my wife views with concern almost every activity — from extreme skiing to bicycling to, yes, crossing the street — that could lead to harm. Fireworks that do more than lie there and sputter rank high on her danger list.

On the other side of the debate are those who, like me, not only enjoy fireworks but believe that people ought to make their own decisions about how they spend their time and money, rather than waiting for the government to tell them what’s safe.

After all, just because something is legal does not make it a good idea for everyone under every circumstance. And I doubt very much that anyone who favors loosening Minnesota’s fireworks laws sees it as blanket permission to just fire away.

The potential law’s supporters do, however, recognize some objective reality: Fireworks are already in wide use around Minnesota and in most communities anyone who isn’t aggravating her neighbors or shooting off bottle rockets right in front of a police car has pretty free reign to light the fuses.

I lie in bed many a summer night listening to the rattle of firecrackers, bottle rockets and, occasionally, much bigger rockets. Some are going off not far from our southwest side home. Others sound like they’re clear across town. Regardless of the exact location, there are plenty of fun-sounding mini-explosions.

The bigger issue, however, is one of personal responsibility. At root, forbidding fireworks is a means of saying that people are too stupid to figure out for themselves how to use them.

It is undeniable that some people will do stupid things with fireworks. People also do stupid things with their motorcycles, such as ride without a helmet. They climb up on precarious ladders to clean their rain gutters. They ride horses. They go swimming in places where there aren’t lifeguards. They buy and operate chainsaws without training or safety gear. And they get hurt doing all of those things, all of which are perfectly legal.

It is simply impossible to legislate away every danger. Last summer, for example, it took only five minutes of boredom, an old board and some broken bricks for our boys to build a mini-catapult and learn that bending over the launch end is a good way to get smacked in the face with a chunk of brick. Just lucky it wasn’t an eye shot.

Tempting as it is, I won’t offer examples of all the things that we were allowed to do as children in the 1960s and that would today be considered ridiculously dangerous. That was a different time.

Nor is this column meant to suggest that there is no place for safety regulations. Driving drunk is an example of a behavior that probably 99.9 percent of Minnesotans agree is really bad. It lures all sorts of otherwise sensible people into trouble that not only hurts themselves but, often enough, many innocent bystanders. And there is absolutely no way it can be done safely. Thus we have good, tough laws to prevent drunken driving and many, many other things that simply can not be done safely.

But fireworks lie somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Yes, people can hurt themselves with fireworks. But most do not. Yes, people can use them irresponsibly. But most do not.

And at some point, people must have permission to make their own mistakes. Every time we try to cushion them with a law, we simply make it harder to learn how to be personally responsible.

As of this writing, the fate of Minnesota fireworks has yet to be determined. My guess is that the House will join the Senate in approving the bill. What the governor will do is anyone’s guess. I hope, however, that the ultimate choice will be to let people use their own judgment on the matter.


Dave Churchill is the publisher of the Austin Daily Herald.