Some Republicans in the state House want North Carolina to join its southern neighbor in selling bigger fireworks, but the legislation sparked booms of criticism in a House committee this week.
House Bill 615 would allow retailers to sell explosives categorized as “consumer fireworks,” which are currently banned in North Carolina. Fireworks enthusiasts here can only buy smaller “novelty fireworks,” such as sparklers, which has resulted in a thriving industry of fireworks stands just across the border in South Carolina — even though it’s technically illegal to use those fireworks here.
Rep. John Szoka, R-Cumberland, said state law needs to address — and properly regulate — the reality that people are buying fireworks elsewhere and setting them off here.
“We already have fireworks in our state that are being blown up without any safety considerations, and without any enforcement,” he said, adding that his bill “recognizes reality as it is, not how we’d like it to be or how we dream at night that it should be.”
But Szoka ultimately displaced the bill from the House Regulatory Reform committee on Tuesday without taking a vote, after opposition from firefighters, the State Fire Marshal and legislators who worry that more fireworks would bring injuries and fires.
Lemuel Hubbard, a deputy fire marshal with the Raleigh Fire Department, said the city saw 14 fires resulting from fireworks on July 4 this year.
“If we have more powerful fireworks, we’re going to have more fires,” he said.
HB 615 wouldn’t automatically allow fireworks sales throughout the state; local government leaders would have to vote to allow the sales in their counties, cities and towns. You’d need to be age 18 or older to buy the fireworks, and they could only be used between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m., with later hours allowed on July 4 and New Year’s Eve. “Consumer fireworks” would be defined as devices categorized as a “1.4 G firework device” by the American Pyrotechnics Association.
The bill calls for a 5% excise tax on fireworks sales, with a portion of the revenue going to the Firefighters’ Education Fund. Rep. Keith Kidwell, R-Beaufort, called the extra tax “inappropriate” because the new business would already generate more government revenue, but his amendment to delete the tax provision failed in a 7-9 committee vote. Andy Ellen of the N.C. Retail Merchants Association also voiced concerns, citing permit fees of up to $5,000 for retailers. “A lot of this is set up as a barrier to entry for retailers,” he said.
The only speaker in favor of the bill was Dan Peart, a lobbyist for Phantom Fireworks. He pointed to statistics showing that safety records for fireworks have improved in recent years even as sales have increased, and none of the states that recently allowed more fireworks sales have repealed their laws.
But Sarah Bales, a lobbyist representing the group North Carolinians for Fireworks Safety, also cited safety statistics.
“At least half of all injuries are to innocent bystanders, and 36 percent of them are children,” she said. “They’re dangerous products.”
Szoka said he plans to work on changes to the bill before it gets another hearing. “There were some constructive comments, so I’m going to go back and try to weave some of that into the bill,” he said after Tuesday’s committee meeting.