Mike Helenthal column: There must be a better way than this to regulate fireworks

Mike Helenthal
Star Courier

If you want to see mass insurrection, just peek outside your door this weekend.

Despite laws making fireworks illegal, a large percentage of Illinois residents will light them off with glee this weekend without a a pinch of guilt or worries they'll be arrested.

I've been a lawbreaker myself for many of those Fourths and have never been caught. But its still really bad optics to have a law on the books that nobody follows and that police don't enforce.

I take that back -- police will enforce fireworks laws, but even they admit they can't do much against this annual tide of resident uprising. It puts police in an untenable position as thousands of people flout the law and light off bottle rocket after bottle rocket.

"There are hundreds and hundreds of people who enjoy lighting fireworks off around the Fourth," said Kewanee Police Chief Nick Welgat. "It's the same thing every year."

He said police will act on a noise complaint or concerns over safety, but admits there's just not much local police can do in the face of so many people flouting the law at once.

"It's a question of finding them, and by the time we get there, the evidence is gone," he said. "Most of the time, it's hard proving."

He said officers are hesitant to write tickets when illegal fireworks are found, but they will if past requests to cease have been ignored, if there's a safety concern or if it's late at night and causing a nuisance. Most likely, they'll issue a verbal warning and confiscate the fireworks.

"We advise them to stop or increae patrols in tht area," he said. "We try to keep it under control the best we can."

I've written columns in the past lamenting the laws of Illinois that govern fireworks. I know that children are injured every year from shooting off fireworks, but they are being injured even though the fireworks are already prohibited by law. 

Fireworks have been illegal in Illinois my entire life, and for whatever reason, that doesn't seem ready to change anytime soon. I can't remember the last time a state legislator even brought it up for consideration, even though we now have rampant gambling and legal cannabis, despite federal laws forbidding both.

But in addition to lost revenue by not allowing sales here (revenue that currently goes to the fireworks-selling but not fireworks-shooting states of Iowa and Indiana), the state is missing a chance to set up a common-sense system to improve safety and give local cops and fire officials a little more control over the whole thing.

Rather than an outright ban, I'd like to see backyard permits offered to residents, who would have to show basic insurance coverage in the event there is an injury or other damage caused by the backyard display. It could be a short-term permit that covered, say, the Fourth of July weekend only.

Making them legal even for this short period would make it easier for police and could even be expanded for cities who want to offer up a park or open space each year for residents to come shoot off their boomers. 

Such an event could mark out safe distances between displays and include firefighters offering safety advice or treating injuries immediately if there were any. Being in one location would allow it to be monitored more easily and would likely put a dent in the backyard displays. Maybe a small entry fee could cover the costs of the cleanup. The state could collect its cut with a backyard permit that included a promise to adhere to the most basic of safety rules.

Now, how fun would it be to legally gather with your friends and family at Northeast Park to shoot off fireworks on the Fourth?

Or is it just more fun to dodge the cops and hope for the best?