A proposed 2016 ballot measure to legalize the possession and sale of consumer fireworks in Massachusetts is drawing heat from fire officials and doctors, setting the stage for what could be a divisive debate over the economics and safety of pyrotechnics.
The measure, if it passes a series of legal and signature-gathering hurdles, would allow voters next year to say whether adults should be allowed to buy, possess, and use products such as sparklers and aerial fireworks, currently barred in the state.
The effort’s lead backer, Richard M. Bastien, a former state representative from Gardner, says it doesn’t make economic sense to lose business to surrounding states, which all allow the sale of at least some types of fireworks. He said Massachusetts is a national outlier, as many states have relaxed their laws in recent years.
Indeed, Massachusetts, Delaware, and New Jersey are the only states that ban all consumer fireworks, according to Julie L. Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, a fireworks industry trade group.
But fire officials and doctors in the state say the ban is good for public safety and should remain in place. They point to a number of accidents, including some this Fourth of July, caused by fireworks.
“I will lead a strong coalition to oppose any effort to legalize fireworks in Massachusetts,” said state Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan. But, he said in a telephone interview, unlike legislative legalization efforts he and others have defeated in the past, a statewide vote would mark a different type of fight.
If there is a ballot question, he said, “I really do believe this will be a hard-fought battle.”
Should Massachusetts ease its fireworks ban, it will be following in the path of other states, most recently New York. They have loosened restrictions as a result of several factors, including tough economic times stimulating interest in boosting tax revenue, said Heckman.
Heckman said that federal statistics don’t support worries about increased injuries and fires when bans are relaxed.
“What we have seen: With the increase of fireworks usage, fires and fireworks-related injuries have actually declined,” she said. “When people are allowed to do an activity, they tend to do it appropriately,” and when it’s illegal, they tend to go about it quickly and in a way that increases the risk of injury.
But Coan was skeptical.
“I don’t believe their statistics. I doubt the validity of their data,” the fire marshal said, citing his own data. Coan said in Washington state, which is comparable demographically to Massachusetts but allows fireworks, there are simply more injuries from fireworks.
He’s not the only top fire official to blast the idea of legalization for consumers, which differs from licensed professionals mounting showy displays.
Joseph E. Finn, fire commissioner for the city of Boston, said through a spokesman he is “strongly against any initiative to allow any type of fireworks for sale or use in Massachusetts” and said some “tragic” fireworks accidents this summer were the latest in long series of pyrotechnic mishaps.
Dr. Philip Chang, a burn surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital and Shriners Hospital for Children-Boston, said he has taken care of many patients suffering from fireworks burns, including a boy whose hand was grievously injured this July 4 holiday in Dorchester.
“I simply don’t see any advantage to legalizing fireworks, and the potential consequences of legalization could be hundreds of patients injured every year,” Chang said.
The proposed Massachusetts law is broader than those in some nearby states, because it would allow certain types of pyrotechnics that those states ban, Bastien said. Smoke bombs, for instance, are banned in New Hampshire, but would be allowed in Massachusetts.
But, he emphasized, items such as cherry bombs would remain off-limits here, because explosives with that much powder are prohibited by the federal government.
Beyond underscoring the economic pluses of legalization, Bastien said it’s important to acknowledge the reality: The ban, he said, doesn’t work.
Standing around any backyard on the Fourth of July, he said, “you can’t deny that they’re still being used. At that point, the question is: Is the ban producing the intended effect, is it keeping these fireworks out of Massachusetts? The answer is no.”
He said it made sense to remove the ban and impose “reasonable” restrictions, such as limiting purchases and use to people 18 and older, and limiting when and where fireworks can be used — only on private property and at certain times.
Bastien, a Republican who said he is unpaid for his work and stands to make no money should the effort succeed, said his fellow proponents were just people who like fireworks and believe they should be legal.
But they face a steep road to put a question before voters.
First, backers are asking Attorney General Maura Healey to decide if the question passes constitutional muster. If it does, they would have to gather tens of thousands of signatures.
In at least one spot where fireworks are legal, there wasn’t much worry about the push in Massachusetts.
Just over the state line in Seabrook, N.H., Steve Carbone, owner of Atomic Fireworks Inc., said Thursday he’s not worried about the effect legalization in Massachusetts might have on his sales. Carbone would probably lose a little business from people going to stores in Massachusetts, he said, but make it up in increased interest from folks south of the border looking to buy without paying a sales tax.
Surrounded by huge piles of fireworks with names such as Mark of Greatness, Fear in My Enemies Eyes, and Game On (which promises a “big palm tree with strobe”), Carbone said that if they became legal in Massachusetts, he would probably open a store on the South Shore where, he predicted, business would be brisk.