Why, asks Boise’s fire chief, can we buy illegal fireworks when we can’t use them?
We love fireworks. But we love our Foothills, too. We also prize the austere beauty of the range and desert to our south, and don’t want to see it burn. And we believe in respecting the law.
So how do we, or any Idahoan for that matter, balance these beliefs given that Idaho’s "ban" on fireworks is so widely ignored and disrespected?
Imagine if someone proposed that Idaho’s Legislature create a parallel system for marijuana: Businesses could set up along the freeway to sell pot just a quick drive from the state’s population center. But those businesses would be able to sell only to customers who pinky-swear to not use that marijuana in Idaho.
Such a proposal would get laughed out of the Capitol.
Yet that is the Idaho way on fireworks. It’s against the law for regular folk to possess or use fireworks that explode like firecrackers or shoot into the sky, like Francis Scott Key’s bombs bursting in air. And yet: It’s apparently not against the law to sell aerial fireworks, because sellers get their buyers to sign an affidavit that they won’t use the fireworks in Idaho.
A law that starts by asking customers to commit perjury has serious problems. And it gets worse from there. So many people break Idaho’s fireworks law from late June to early July that law enforcement is paralyzed. Police can respond to only the most serious complaints. Prosecutors don’t want to touch the cases. The Fire Department is detailed to do a grim fire watch every year, hoping and praying we don’t get the combination of heat, wind and stupidity that gave us the heartbreak of June 2016. Just two years ago, the Table Rock Fire blackened 2,500 acres of some of Boise’s most beloved open space, burned one home and threatened many more. The man convicted of starting the fire is on the hook for nearly $400,000 in restitution that is likely to never be paid.
So, our hearts tell us to crack down, on the wink-and-a-nod sellers of fireworks and the law-breaking users who risk burning Idaho homes and hills.
But our brains remind us that prohibition is often doomed to fail, as are laws that have the respect of no one.
Even if Idaho’s Legislature were successful in passing a crackdown (which it has failed to do in recent years), people can still buy aerial fireworks on Indian reservations and in neighboring states.
It’s understandable that Boise Fire Chief Dennis Doan would express his frustration by wanting to go after the businesses that supply fireworks in cases of damaging fires. We share that frustration. But with murky legal interpretations and case law, and the difficulty of tracking individual fireworks to specific vendors, that’s a longshot at best and not likely to be a realistic remedy.
What can Idaho do?
Don't fight the market. Use it. Legalize fireworks. Tax them stiffly to raise enough money to pay for fire prevention and suppression. Impose sensible restrictions on when and where they can be used. Enforce those sensible laws with fines tough enough to set an example. And hit abusers who start fires or injure others with penalties that hurt. Sure, give Chief Doan the legal clarity to seek damages in the case of the worst abuses.
If we have a law that people understand and respect, they’ll abide by reasonable restrictions. We’ll have fewer yahoos sending sparks into the dry Foothills, and fewer scofflaws skulking around to hide from scowling neighbors or frowning cops. If fireworks use is legal and in the open, sellers will be able to offer better instruction and guidance on safety and use. We could see fireworks-safety classes, ala hunter-safety courses.
This approach acknowledges reality: Idahoans want to celebrate the Fourth grandly, regardless of what the law says or how the fire chief feels. Today we have a law ignored by all, disrespected by citizens, not enforced by authorities, few sanctions for abusers and little recourse for victims. Idaho can’t do worse than the status quo.