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The Boston Globe

Opinion

opinion | jennifer graham

Fireworks freedom

As the Fourth looms, ban shows Mass. is at its nanny-state worst

istockphoto/h. hopp-bruce/globe staff

Lest anyone need a reminder that our state is less than free, the Department of Transportation is warning motorists that fireworks are illegal here, and we’ll pay fines and go to jail if we dare get pyrotechnical on Independence Day.

That’s all we need, more patriots in jail.

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Is this really the best use of our highway signage? Wouldn’t it be more helpful to let the out-of-towners know that it’ll take three hours to travel the last mile to the Esplanade, and they should take a detour and see the fireworks in Acton? More importantly, must we advertise our nannyism for all the tourists to see?

In 46 other states, consumer fireworks are legal, and these states generally benefit from taxes and licensing fees. But no, we’re in what the American Pyrotechnics Association has termed the Final Four, competing with New York, New Jersey, and Delaware to be the populace most terrified of sparklers.

In California and elsewhere, legal fireworks are marked “safe and sane.” Here in Massachusetts, we’re safe and insane, secure in the straitjacket of the nation’s strictest fireworks laws, while rocking in the Cradle of Liberty. “Leave the fireworks to the professionals,” the state fire marshal says in his video message. Two hundred years and a powdered wig ago, he’d have said, “Leave the governance to the Georges.”

I’m no fire marshal, but I do know how to hold a sparkler in a manner in which I retain all my digits. Of course, that knowledge comes from experience. Growing up in South Carolina, I visited Casey’s Fireworks every July 3 and Dec. 31 to purchase playthings with fuses, which I would then set off in the front yard with no adult supervision. Times have changed, yes, it’s true. The fireworks have gotten safer, not more dangerous.

In South Carolina, you can buy fireworks at the supermarket, along with a six-pack of beer. And if this scares the great-grandsons of liberty away from the South, well, that just means others don’t have to wait in line as long. So, thanks.

In these parts, every now and then, a sensible lawmaker tries to reintroduce the concept of liberty to the Bay State, and for his earnest efforts, he’s quickly booted out. (Ask Richard Bastien, the former Republican state representative from Gardner.) This confounds the rational, since the chief argument against fireworks is a straw one, set easily ablaze. It’s the same argument that the mom in “A Christmas Story” makes against the Red Ryder BB gun: We’ll shoot our eyes out!

Because we’re not professionals, of course.

But the thing is, a lot of us are professionals, and proportionally, more here than anywhere else. Massachusetts consistently has a higher rate of college graduates and brainiacs with graduate degrees than any other state in the nation. If any state has a population mentally qualified to wave 8-inch sticks that emit sparks, it’s the home of Harvard, Brandeis, and MIT.

Even our kids are smarter than most of the kids allowed to brandish Roman candles with abandon; on tests, they outperform the rest of the country and much of the world. A truly safe and sane fireworks policy would take this into account: The smartest people get to play with the coolest toys. How about establishing a Darwin test for fireworks stores? If you can explain “survival of the fittest,” you get to enter.

The antifireworks lobby might assume the Boston Marathon bombers helped their cause, because Tamerlan Tsarnaev bought fireworks in New Hampshire. And indeed, the American Pyrotechnics Association braced for a backlash, but Executive Director Julie Heckman told me it never came. She pointed out that most Americans, even those without advanced professional degrees, understand that fireworks, like fertilizer and pool chemicals, have uses other than murder.

Meanwhile, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that the six fireworks-related deaths last year were related to fireworks that were homemade or illegal, and that injuries from fireworks were down 10 percent from 2011.

That’s not worth a 21-gun salute, but maybe a double serving of rum, like General Washington gave his soldiers on July 4, 1778. Liberty is worth celebrating, even when it’s only a dim concept, unlit by a bottle rocket’s red glare.

Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe.
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