Prohibitions ease on pyrotechnics in many states

Camille Esposito, owner of the fireworks seller July 4 Ever, helps out a customer in Newburgh, N.Y. Limited sales of “sparkling devices” have been made legal in New York state.

After stocking up on sparklers and flaming fountains, Don Eason couldn’t resist adding one more impulse buy to his incendiary items: a Fiery Frog, which promises to erupt in a column of crackling, multicolor sparks.

“Daddy’s getting you a green thing, too,” he told his 3-year-old twin sons.

“Green!” Devine said enthusiastically, as his brother, Daylan, waved a box of sparklers and shouted, “Fireworks!”

For the first time in more than a century, shoppers like Eason can legally buy some small, consumer-grade fireworks in parts of New York state. They remain banned in New York City, but in November, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed legislation allowing limited sales in counties that choose to permit them. More than 30 of New York’s 62 counties opted in, allowing “sparkling devices,” as the law refers to them, to be sold and used within their borders.

New York’s law is the latest outcome of a nationwide movement toward relaxing fireworks restrictions. Only three states — Delaware, Massachusetts and New Jersey — still ban all consumer sales, and this year, Georgia expanded its law, allowing a broader range of products to be sold.

The wave of legalization began in earnest in 2000, when Connecticut passed a limited law allowing only the sale of sparklers and fountains, said Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association. Following that model, at least half a dozen states that previously had forbidden all sales changed their laws to allow residents to buy and use some types of fireworks.

“The states are all competing for revenue,” Heckman said. “Especially in the past several years, because of the tough economy, they got tired of the general public crossing state lines, purchasing products and bringing them back in.”

Keeping residents’ cash within the state was a big motivation for New York’s change. The bill’s sponsor, Michael F. Nozzolio, a Republican state senator from the Finger Lakes region, estimates that New York could collect $2 million in tax revenue on sales this year.

New York’s rules remain stricter than those in many other places. Consumer fireworks can be sold only during two annual time periods — June 1 through July 5, and Dec. 26 through Jan. 2 — and only ground-based and hand-held devices are allowed. Projectile fireworks that launch aerial displays remain off limits.

Merchants say plenty of shoppers are undeterred by those restrictions.

“People are just so delighted to buy sparklers,” said Camille Esposito, owner of July 4 Ever, a fireworks company in Walden, N.Y., that she runs with her husband, Anthony. “They’ve been our biggest seller. Everyone picks up a box or two.”

July 4 Ever is a display fireworks business that specializes in weddings and celebrations, but the Espositos jumped into consumer sales as soon as they became legal, opening four temporary shops. Their flagship location, in the parking lot of the Orange County Choppers supermarket in Newburgh, is packed with fountains, snappers, snakes, smoke bombs and all the other fireworks New York allows.

Customers are often surprised that they cannot get all of the firepower available in Pennsylvania, which restricts fireworks use within the state but allows out-of-state visitors to buy more powerful pyrotechnics.

“You got blockbusters? M-80s?” Jason Beams asked on Thursday as he looked over July 4 Ever’s selection. Esposito shook her head. “How about bottle rockets? Jumping jacks?”

Beams settled for some sparklers and smoke bombs, which his 5-year-old son immediately opened to inspect. Like many in the area, Beams remembers playing with fireworks when he was younger.

Although New York had a ban on the books as far back as 1909, enforcement throughout the state waxed and waned over the years. In New York City, illegal sales became rarer after 1995, when Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani formed a task force to seize shipments brought into the city.

Some shoppers are not interested in the tamer offerings, Esposito acknowledged, but most make at least a few purchases. “My No. 1 sales pitch is: ‘You’re doing this legally. You can’t get in trouble. Why would you jeopardize that by going to Pennsylvania?’” she said.

TNT Fireworks, one of the nation’s largest fireworks distributors, said its sales in New York had been 20 percent to 25 percent higher than in any other state during the first year of sales. Across the industry, this season is shaping up to be strong. Consumer fireworks sales were a record $695 million last year, according to the industry’s trade group, and this year will most likely top that, in part because Independence Day falls on a Saturday and turning the holiday into a three-day weekend.

“People are in a mood to celebrate,” said William Weimer, the vice president of Phantom Fireworks, a national retailer with more than 1,200 seasonal locations. “The economy has picked up a bit, and we’ve had pretty good weather so far, except way out West.”