Zach Harris considers himself to be a nationalist who loves to celebrate America’s Independence Day. He just wishes he had the freedom to do it with proper flair.
For Harris, who lives near Monroe in the western part of the state, that would mean setting off aerial fireworks — shells that go into a tube and are fired into the air, where they go “boom” and release a shower of color. Because nothing says “patriotism” like pyrotechnics.
“I have nothing against professional fireworks shows,” Harris said. “I just think it’s fun to do your own thing. It’s more exciting.”
Harris, 21, has been pushing for five years for North Carolina to relax its fireworks laws, and he thinks 2019 will be the magic year for lawmakers to consider his proposal.
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What he’s asking for, Harris said, is for North Carolina to allow the sale of the items that some of its residents now drive to South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee to buy because they’re illegal here. Harris said the state is losing potential tax revenues from sales of the fireworks, and some of that money could be dedicated for use by fire departments. His proposal would allow counties and municipalities to ban the items allowed by the state if they wanted to.
What N.C. allows
Until 1993, it wasn’t legal to sell or use any kind of consumer fireworks in North Carolina. A lot of people now in their 50s and 60s remember stopping at outlets on the way to or from Myrtle Beach, S.C., so their dads could pick up boxes of sparklers.
When N.C. legislators did allow some sales, they were very narrow.
That means that under her giant yellow-and-white-striped tent on the side of U.S. 401 on the northern edge of Fuquay-Varina, Brenda Watson can’t sell anything that isn’t categorized as “safe and sane.” Prohibited is anything that explodes or shoots into the air.
That leaves a lot of brightly packaged explosive caps that can be fired in toy pistols; snakes and glow worms made of pressed pellets; smoke bombs; trick noisemakers such as party poppers, string poppers and snappers; and sparklers.
Watson is operating the TNT Fireworks concession, set up in a gravel lot between a Hardee’s restaurant and a car wash, as a way to make money to help pay her son’s college tuition, and because she loves fireworks. Cary High School’s track and cross-country runners also are running a TNT tent near Kohl’s in the Crossroads shopping center to raise money for the team.
As more states have lifted bans on fireworks sales, leaving only Massachusetts with a full prohibition, sales have skyrocketed. According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, in 1998, consumers bought $284 million worth of sizzling, smoking devices. In 2008, they shelled out $627 million and in 2017, $885 million.
Injuries and deaths
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s 2016 Fireworks Annual Report said that about seven people were killed each year in fireworks accidents from 2001 to 2016. In 2016, the commission says, an estimated 11,000 people were treated in U.S. hospital emergency departments for fireworks-related injuries, more than half of those during the month between June 18 and July 18.
Of those injured, 61 percent were male and 39 percent female. Children younger than 15 accounted for 31 percent of the injuries.
Presumably, the commission looked at injuries reported for two weeks before and two weeks after July Fourth because fireworks fans don’t limit themselves to a single date on the calendar to celebrate their nation’s independence. Neither did the founding fathers; John Adams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, believed the holiday should be celebrated on July 2, when the Continental Congress declared America’s freedom from Great Britain in 1776.
But the paperwork took a day or two, and Congress approved and signed the actual Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia on July 4.
Watson said she’ll celebrate with fireworks on July 5, because she’ll be selling them until closing time on the 4th.
But even if she’s late, she said, she’ll be there.
“The rockets’ red glare. The bombs bursting in air. That’s what all this is,” she said. “And I love it.”