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Fourth of July and the Law of Fireworks

When you hear “Independence Day,” what comes to mind? Perhaps a myriad of things—cookouts, swimming, tricorn hats, Old Glory, alien invasions—but I’d bet one of the top things most people think of is fireworks. After all, is there a better way to celebrate anything than to set off a series of colorful, controlled explosions? I think not. Of course, being essentially explosives, fireworks are quite heavily regulated, both under federal and state law. Federal law primarily regulates the packaging and transportation of fireworks, while state and local law primarily regulates their manufacture, sale, and use.

Federal regulation of fireworks is under the general category of “hazardous materials.” Today, hazardous materials are divided into several classes, and most classes are further divided into…well, divisions. Explosives are primarily Class 1 hazardous materials, and explosives in Class 1 are divided into six divisions, based on the specific type of hazard the explosive presents, e.g. a projection hazard (Division 1.2) or a fire hazard (Division 1.3). Fireworks generally fall under Division 1.4 (minor explosion hazard) and Division 1.5 (very insensitive explosives with a mass explosion hazard). Because referencing classes and divisions is rather cumbersome, federal law provides several terms for informational purposes, including the term “fireworks,” which is defined as “pyrotechnic articles designed for entertainment.” Another defined term, “consumer fireworks,” is a subset of fireworks which meet certain standards and are intended for use by the public. These informational terms help with navigating and understanding the regulations, while the underlying class and division system applies to the regulations themselves.

Many state and local laws reference the federal classification system for purposes of applying their regulations. However, the federal classification system changed on January 1, 1991 (yes, New Year’s Day, another holiday associated with fireworks). Fortunately, the federal law provides a handy table for reconciling the old system with the new system, thus ensuring that no state or local law referencing the old system is invalidated. However, some states and local governments that reference old federal law are not saved by the conversion table because they reference an aspect of the federal law other than the classification system itself. For example, Texas law references certain terms as defined by federal law which has since been repealed. Nevertheless, the repeal of the federal law does not affect the validity of the Texas law because the Texas law references the federal law as it existed on a specific date.

Most state and local laws regulating the use of fireworks fall under one of two purposes: fire safety and nuisance. Consequently, fire-based regulation of fireworks often vary depending on the drought conditions in the area where the regulations apply, and nuisance-based regulation of fireworks often vary depending on proximity to certain sensitive locations, such as residential areas and schools. Local laws vary far too much to bother setting any out here, but there is likely to be some form of firework regulation pretty much anywhere. If you’re unsure of what regulations may apply to where you are, checking with your local fire marshal is usually a good place to start.

Have a safe and happy Fourth of July.

Please do not rely on this article as legal advice. We can tell you what the law is, but until we know the facts of your given situation, we cannot provide legal guidance. This website is for informational purposes and not for the purposes of providing legal advice. Information about our municipal law practice can be found here.

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