FIULE - Bottle rockets fireworks

Bottle rockets

Hundreds of thousands of Floridians will celebrate July 4th breaking state law by purchasing and setting off fireworks, which are illegal in the Sunshine State unless used to scare off birds.

This contradiction has long been a source of head-scratching and ear-popping confusion, but yet it remains encoded in state statutes – along with a loophole or two that allows retailers to sell fireworks and a general consensus among law enforcement agencies to not enforce the law and crowd local jails with neighbors, friends and family.

Florida is one of seven states that bans all retail sales of consumer fireworks other than “sparklers.”

State statute 791.02 spells that out: “Except as hereinafter provided it is unlawful for any person, firm, copartnership, or corporation to offer for sale, expose for sale, sell at retail, or use or explode any fireworks.”

But, that “hereinafter provided” category is quite expansive. The most notable “hereafter provided” exception is in State Statute 791.07which relates to “Agricultural and fish hatchery use.”

The statute reads: “Nothing in this chapter shall prohibit the importation, purchase, sale, or use of fireworks used or to be used solely and exclusively in frightening birds from agricultural works and fish hatcheries.”

And there it is: Many retailers that sell fireworks often require patrons to sign a waiver that states the buyer is an organizer – say, a representative of a local veterans’ group – who has a permit for a public display, or an individual who intends to use the fireworks for an “approved use” on either their farm or their fish hatchery to scare off animals and birds.

There are, apparently, many farmers and fishery folks in Florida in need of pyrotechnics to protect their property, an urgency that intensifies in the days before and after July 4.

According to an analysis by ValuePenguin, a financial data site, Floridians spent more than $18 million – 87 cents a person – on “imported” fireworks in 2017.

Annual sales of all fireworks now likely tops $20 million in Florida, an estimate that would be in line with the American Pyrotechnic Association’s projection that Americans will spend about $1.6 billion on fireworks this year with consumer purchases – those for personal use, not for public displays – more than $950 million.

The loophole not only serves Floridians who want to shoot off whizz-bangs in the backyard, but financially benefits the state since it requires fireworks manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers and retailers to pay the state’s Fire Marshal’s office an annual “sparkler” registration fee.

For manufacturers, distributors and wholesalers, that annual fee is $1,000.

For “seasonal retailers” – including operators of the roadside tents that spring up as July 4 nears — the annual registration fee is $200 and $15 per additional site.

According to Florida’s Department of Financial Services [DFS], the State Fire Marshal issued approximately 4,500 annual registrations for the sale of “sparklers” in 2017, generating an estimated $275,000 in fee revenues.

County and city governments also impose their own permits and fees on “seasonal retailers,” cashing in on sales that have technically been illegal in Florida since 1941.

Legislators have submitted bills over the years seeking to clarify the state’s fireworks regulations and laws, but to now avail.

There weren’t any fireworks-related bills submitted during the recently concluded 2019 session but two bills were introduced in 2018, including House Bill 6037, sponsored by Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa.

Grant’s bill wold have removed “provisions relating to regulation of sale or use of fireworks” and the “requirement that only registered distributors, manufacturers, retailers, seasonal retailers, & wholesalers may sell fireworks or sparklers.”

It died a dud in committee.