FILE - Fireworks, Fireworks Stand, 4th of July, Independence Day

“[T]hey can’t have a first-rate Fourth without a little noise and nonsense.”

That’s what long-gone Chicago newspaper The Inter Ocean editorialized on July 4, 1877, writing about its paperboys and the city’s ban on fireworks.

“They envy the country boys who have no … city ordinance to prohibit them from having a jolly time.”

Back then, Illinois allowed people to buy fireworks, but Chicago didn’t. Now fireworks are banned statewide – even for “country boys.”

Why?

This Independence Day, families across the state were surrounded by rockets and roman candles. Most were illegal. Illinois is among only four states in the nation to prohibit the purchase and use of all, or nearly all, consumer fireworks. The other 90 percent of Americans live under state governments that aren’t Scrooges.

Illinois lawmakers were actively considering a statewide fireworks ban as early as the 1930s. Chicago Democratic state Sen. Edward O’Grady introduced a bill in 1933 that would have made Illinois the first state to ban the manufacture, use and sale of fireworks. It failed to pass.

Neighboring Iowa became the first state in the nation to ban fireworks in 1938, and Illinois followed suit in 1942, when its own ban went into effect.

State Rep. William G. Thon, a Chicago Republican, authored that ban. Despite serving nearly 40 years in the House and dying in office, the Associated Press wire announcing his death in 1953 cited the fireworks ban as Thon’s signature legislative accomplishment.

While it’s been modernized over the years, Illinois is still stuck with Thon’s law. But Iowans finally got rid of theirs last year, making Independence Day 2017 the first time in generations that Illinois was completely surrounded by states where residents were free to enjoy a variety of consumer fireworks.

And that makes Illinois’ bizarre anachronism all the more frustrating. Talk to any border-town fireworks purveyor – from Kris Zambo of Dynamite Fireworks in Northwest Indiana to Deanna Delimat of Black Bull Fireworks in Southeast Wisconsin – and they’ll be happy to tell you a bulk of their business comes from disgruntled Illinoisans.

It’s easy to point to forgone summer jobs and economic activity as reasons to overturn the ban. And it’s true neighboring states have reaped millions of dollars in tax revenue due to Illinois’ backwards law.

But the most important reason to repeal the ban is that Illinois, the Land of Lincoln and first state to ratify the 13th Amendment, isn’t a nanny. Celebrating independence shouldn’t come with a fine or jail time.

That doesn’t stop a vocal minority from defending the ban, however. Their main argument is simple: Safety.

While nobody wants to see a loved one harmed, those worries are misplaced. Nationwide, tipped-over furniture and children’s toys each caused more emergency-room visits than fireworks in 2017, according to a report by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The report concluded, “there is not a statistically significant trend in estimated emergency department-treated, fireworks-related injuries from 2002 to 2017,” despite more and more states legalizing fireworks over that time.

In fact, one of the best arguments in favor of legalization is safety. Bad sellers can be held to account and consumers can get quality advice on the products they’re using.

A secondary argument in favor of the ban usually involves dogs, babies or veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. But these groups suffer equally whether the noise is coming from a firework purchased in Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, Michigan or Illinois. All else equal, it’s better if that money’s spent here. And the law against using fireworks is practically unenforceable as-is, doing little to protect sensitive people and animals.

Next year, state lawmakers should explore making rockets’ red glare a legal pastime instead of a liability.

Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. He wrote this column for the Illinois News Network. Austin can be reached at aberg@illinoispolicy.org.

Contributing Columnist

Austin Berg's award-winning work has been featured in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, and he has appeared on ABC 7 Chicago and WTTW. Berg was also the writer of the documentary film “Madigan: Power. Privilege. Politics.”

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