LONDONDERRY, N.H. — There isn’t enough room in the parking lot of the Phantom Fireworks shop to fit all the cars rolling in to stock up on pyrotechnics. On a recent weekend afternoon, rows of vehicles — many with Massachusetts plates — were on the lawn next to the retail showroom, in a side-road business park.
Patrons waited in a 15-minute line to enter the store, then emerged with hundreds of dollars’ worth of mortars, fountains, and aerial repeaters. Most said they would never dream of igniting the devices in the Bay State. “Fireworks are illegal in Massachusetts,” observed one man — who like others declined to give his name — as he loaded up his truck with his purchases, including the “BARELY LEGAL” Lock and Load mortar kit.
Another man admitted that he was bringing his haul back home to Weymouth: “Everybody’s setting off fireworks. If it’s not me, it’s the neighbors,” the man said, holding up coupons that Phantom had mailed him. “And it’s just because there’s nothing to do.”
For much of the past two months, the skies of Greater Boston have been lit up by a noisy display that has divided the region into two camps: those lighting off fireworks and those wondering why their neighbors won’t stop lighting off fireworks.
In the city, and in urban areas across the nation, complaints to police about fireworks have skyrocketed. Public officials are trying to get a handle on where people are buying them and why they’re setting them off. Theories abound.
Some have speculated that they are linked to the nationwide protests for racial justice. Others believe they’re mostly a release for people cooped up for months during the COVID-19 pandemic and looking to blow a little bit of the money they would’ve spent elsewhere. And it’s all happening as Boston and other communities have canceled the huge, commercial fireworks displays people look forward to each July 4.
Bruce Zoldan, chief executive of Phantom Fireworks, said he and other fireworks sellers he’s spoken with have seen a huge increase in interest nationwide — sometimes double or triple the usual business.
“We’ve never seen, in the history of our industry, demand so high for consumer fireworks,” Zoldan said. “It’s hard for us to keep them on the shelves. We send truck after truck to our stores nationwide.”
People trapped at home because of the coronavirus pandemic, Zoldan said, are turning to fireworks “because it’s their only avenue of entertainment right now.”
Phantom, a national chain that has three stores in New Hampshire, has been particularly aggressive in its outreach since it began reopening stores in mid-May.
Fireworks are not difficult to come by around Massachusetts, despite the state’s blanket ban on pyrotechnics. In part, that’s because neighboring New Hampshire is far more permissive, and has plenty for sale, from aerial fireworks to roman candles, ground spinners, party poppers, and sparklers. Rhode Island stores offer a more limited selection.
Fireworks shops in New Hampshire are clustered, conveniently, near highway exits close to the Massachusetts border. And some have gone as far as to market directly to consumers in the Bay State.
One mailer sent to Massachusetts, from Phantom Fireworks, encourages recipients to join those celebrating the Fourth of July “in backyards across America.” The company suggests customers purchase gift cards online, then redeem them at showrooms at its “Boston” stores in Londonderry and Seabrook, N.H., or its “Springfield” store in Hinsdale, N.H.
In small print on the last page of the flier, there’s a notice that implores those who read it to use their fireworks in compliance with laws including those that prohibit “the transportation, sale, possession, or use of fireworks in Massachusetts without a valid permit.” The company’s website also lists a similar notice.
The company’s marketing efforts have caught the attention of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.
“Our office has received more than a dozen complaints from consumers about fireworks advertisements they received from Phantom Fireworks in New Hampshire,” Healey said in a statement. “Our consumer protection team is currently looking into this matter.”
Zoldan said he did not see a legal issue with marketing to consumers in Massachusetts, so long as the company includes a disclaimer that the product is illegal to use in the Commonwealth. Massachusetts residents are free to set off fireworks in, say, the back yards of family members’ houses in New Hampshire or Maine, he said, and enforcing Massachusetts laws should not be left to fireworks retailers.
“It’s good hype, it’s good politics, I guess, to say ‘we’re investigating it.' But what we’re doing is legal where we’re doing it,” Zoldan said.
For some Bostonians, a trip to New Hampshire might not even be necessary. Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who has formed a task force to examine the topic, has asked residents to report any sightings of people selling fireworks out of vans.
“They’re definitely being sold illegally here,” Walsh said at a news conference Monday. “If we find you, we’re gonna confiscate that, and if you have large amounts of fireworks … that you’re selling in our communities, you will be arrested.”
At-Large Boston City Councilor Julia Mejia, who has been hearing fireworks in her neighborhood since April, said she got home from work one day to see a person she didn’t know setting off fireworks on her street. Instead of calling police, she walked up to him and started talking — an approach she has since repeated around the city.
“Nobody’s working. We have the time. And those folks who are collecting unemployment have money. So what is there to do than just blast off steam?” Mejia said. “Some have said to me that it’s an adrenaline rush for them, that it’s a way for them to express their aggression. . . . Also, ‘rage against the machine,' if you will. They’re pissed off at what’s happening, and this is their way of rebelling.”
Mejia said the fireworks are unpleasant at best and acutely painful to those most sensitive to the noise: People who have lost loved ones to violence or lived through shootings themselves; survivors of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing; war veterans; elderly people who are losing sleep; pet owners who can’t calm their dogs and cats.
“They sound like bombs, literally going off in our neighborhoods. So just the visualization of what that could be really has people on edge,” she said.
Mejia’s office has created public service announcements and a Facebook group called Stop the Spark for Bostonians to voice their concerns. But to address the issue directly, Mejia said, she has been mulling a counter-intuitive idea — a fireworks festival. It would be a day for Bostonians to gather together at an appropriate time, in some less-densely populated area of the city, to learn about pyrotechnics and fireworks safety and set off all their fireworks in one go.
“If we can be creative about what that looks like, people will want to be engaged,” she said.
The mayor’s office referred questions about his comment regarding mobile fireworks sales to the Boston Police Department, which declined to offer specifics, citing ongoing investigations.
But Sergeant Detective John Boyle, a police spokesman, said people who set off fireworks in the city’s densely packed neighborhoods are endangering themselves and their neighbors.
“You could see houses burn down,” Boyle said.
The boom year consumer fireworks sellers are experiencing — and the bust for companies that focus on large pyrotechnics displays — exaggerates a trend that’s been unfolding for several years, according to the pyrotechnics association. Consumer fireworks have climbed 60 percent over the past decade, hitting $1 billion in the United States last year, as revenue from display sales has risen only slightly.
Julie L. Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, a national trade group, said retailers are as puzzled as anyone about what is driving the massive increase in consumption. She believes this year’s spike must be quarantine-related, a combination of pent-up frustration and boredom.
“They can’t go to a concert. They can’t go to a festival. They can’t go to a movie theater,” she said. “They can’t even go to dinner with extended family and friends, so they’re choosing to buy fireworks and set them off.”