Editorial: Iowa's permissive fireworks law hurts people for no good reason

The Des Moines Register
The Des Moines Register

Few things capture the obnoxiousness of a certain "love it or leave it" brand of patriotism like Iowa's permissive approach toward personal fireworks displays.

Since state lawmakers reversed a statewide ban on fireworks sales in 2017, we've been through five summers where city dwellers who stay home have no choice but to endure nights and nights of loud bangs leading up to the Fourth of July — and that annoyance is if they're lucky.

It's more than an inconvenience to veterans for whom explosions can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. To families whose small children are terrified (or even just disturbed from sleep, presaging a week or more of trying to restore a carefully cultivated nighttime routine). To pet owners who can't help animals understand what's happening.

It's exasperating enough that those intrusions on other Iowans' well-being aren't viewed as justification for leaving fireworks solely in the hands of professionals. But we haven't even broached the physical harms.

In 2020, smoke stayed trapped over Des Moines well into July 5, exceeding national fine particle standards and prompting warnings for children and people with respiratory conditions to stay inside. Finally, there are the injuries. Every year, University of Iowa researchers trumpet the figures — that Iowa's largest trauma centers treat twice as many serious injuries from fireworks each year as they did before the law changed, that the rate of injuries to children went up even further, and that amputations have become more common.

Maybe the medical professionals need a different promotion strategy. Perhaps a novelty firework depicting a handless arm? Nationwide, at least 18 people died from fireworks injuries in 2020, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, at least two-thirds of them after they misused the explosives.

Police citations for ignoring bans on fireworks use are disappointingly rare, but even so, public safety officials don't seem to be fully on board with Iowa's near free-for-all. A news release sent Thursday afternoon and attributed to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Iowa Department of Public Health and the State Fire Marshal's Office tries to balance enthusiasm with reality: "As much as we love fireworks, drifting smoke can cause breathing problems for some and drought conditions may pose additional risks this year."

The release goes on to share four safety tips, under the headings "Keep sensitive people upwind," "Protect family and friends from burns," "Don’t risk a fire," and "Store and dispose of fireworks safely."

Quite a bit to keep track of for such an unnecessary activity that is a nuisance to so many. (And people don't follow the directions; last year, a Des Moines splash pool had to stay closed for a day so debris could be cleaned up.)

Republicans in the state Legislature shrug at these complaints, as though they were impossible to hear during a fireworks finale. Instead, this spring, they again retaliated against cities and counties that have tried to be responsible by banning personal fireworks use and limiting where they can be sold. Cities including Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and West Des Moines saw their zoning restrictions on fireworks vendors invalidated.

"This law change was very sudden," West Des Moines Fire Marshal Mike Whitsell told the Register last month. "We had to play catch-up."

To call any of this a victory for freedom is to restrict the definition of freedom to a couple of specific niches: the freedom of individuals to do what they want regardless of who they hurt, and the freedom to sell anything people will buy regardless of the public safety consequences.

Happy Fourth of July. Know where to find your headphones and face masks. Be ready to dial 911.

— Lucas Grundmeier, on behalf of the Register editorial board

This editorial is the opinion of the Des Moines Register's editorial board: Carol Hunter, executive editor; Lucas Grundmeier, opinion editor; Rachelle Chase, opinion columnist; and Richard Doak and Rox Laird, editorial board members.

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Comments / 51

Amanda Ohlhauser

I have a 3 year old and she sleeps through our NEIGHBORS lighting them off so dont go saying "those with small children"... Not ALL small children are the same..


And this article is exactly what is wrong with people now adays! we are Americans! Fireworks on the 4th go hand in hand. yall act like just because Fireworks were illegal that tons of Iowans would just go over the border and bring em back. Obviously there's going to be more emergency room calls but ya once again this is AMERICA!!! Deal with it!

Jill Matejka

well let's become communist and outlaw guns, fireworks, matches, outdoor grills, tiki torches. oh what the heck we'll ban love of God and country.


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