The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

July 3, 2013

Big fireworks are illegal, but shot off anyway

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — An ad in a Charleston newspaper, posted by a Kentucky firm, appealed to West Virginia consumers with a zeal for setting off illegal fireworks.

Cliff Rotz finds the ad both amusing and telling.

“They wouldn’t be advertising if it weren’t lucrative,” says the retired chemical engineer in the Kanawha Valley.

“They’re selling the rockets, firecrackers, Roman candles and the shells — everything that I want to legalize.”

At dusk this Fourth of July, neighborhoods across the state will be aglow with the sound and brilliance of fireworks that one cannot legally own and set off in West Virginia.

“People are shooting them off anyway,” Rotz said.

In advance of the Fourth holiday, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey reminded West Virginians that certain fireworks are illegal and should be left in the hands of the professionals.

“It is a tradition to want to celebrate our nation’s independence with a bang by watching fireworks light up the sky,” he said.

“But it is important to remember that fireworks are dangerous, and many are illegal for consumers to own and set off.”

For several years now, Rotz has tried to coax lawmakers into dropping the ban on the more potent fireworks, all to no avail. His bill has gained the nod of the House Government Organization Committee, but failed to get past first base in the long, legislative process.

One bill, not advocated by Rotz, did leave the Senate a few years ago but fizzled in the House like a wet firecracker.

Twenty or more states have legalized the same fireworks Rotz wants consumers in this state to have access to, all the ones governed by the Consumer Products Safety Commission.

“The truly dangerous things are not legal in this country — the M-80s, cherry bombs, and silver salutes,” he said.

Without exception, the state Fire Marshal’s Office has adamantly opposed legalization of the fireworks Rotz has spelled out in his proposed legislation, arguing that they pose fire and other safety hazards.

His proposal wouldn’t allow the Class B variety, the commercial ones not available to the general public and put on display at public fireworks shows and only with a license issued to pyrotechnic officials.

“I think it’s likely that I’ll take a look at that (failed bill) again,” Rotz said.

If so, when lawmakers convene in January, he will have at least one supporter — Sen. Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming.

Hall acknowledged that many people oppose legalization, but says he has received “overwhelming support” from his constituents who want access to Class C fireworks sold in neighboring states.

“I made a lot of friends in the House and Senate, and I have quite a bit of credibility,” Rotz said.

“People know I’m serious about only legalizing the ones that are quite safe when properly used. West Virginians continue to use them. You will see that on the 4th of July. You’ll see a lot of bangs and pops going off at dusk.”

As a compromise, in the evolution known as the legislative process, Rotz said a requirement for safety brochure to accompany sales was removed.

Rotz said he hasn’t been surprised by the opposition voiced against his bill by the fire marshal’s office.

“I think there is national pressure on the states to automatically be opposed in a knee-jerk fashion,” he said.

“There is data showing as the number of states increased which allow fireworks and especially these newer fireworks, the so-called Class C fireworks, which are the ones that fly or bang. The number of fires nationally due to fireworks has actually gone down over the past 12 to 13 years, even though more states have loosened up their requirements.”

Class A is reserved for dynamite and the like, while the so-called “sparklers” that are legal in West Virginia are part of Class C.

Rotz tried to appeal to lawmakers from another viewpoint — their pocketbooks.

His bill contained a provision levying a special fireworks safety fee ranging between 5 and 10 percent on top of the customary 6 percent sales tax.

“The state is losing a significant amount of revenue from that,” Rotz said.

“That revenue is going to Kentucky, Ohio or other states in which people are buying their fireworks and bringing them back over the border.”

Given that West Virginians largely ignore the ban and shoot them off, Rotz issued some advice for Independence Day celebrations.

“Make sure they allow plenty of space,” he said.

“Back off after lighting the fireworks. Use goggles, even for spectators. And if you’re going to give your young children the legal sparklers, keep a close eye on them. In my opinion, children below 8 shouldn’t be handling sparklers. You can definitely burn yourself pretty badly on them. Parental guidance is very important, even with the ones that are legal in this state.”

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