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News Opinion Editorial

If not firearms, how about fireworks control?

Let us beat the gun-rights crowd to the punch and agree with them right here and now that firearms aren't the only dangerous devices out there in dire need of greater regulation. It seems that certain types of fireworks may need to be added to that list, too.

For those who aren't up on the latest word from the Boston Marathon bombing investigation, it appears some or all of the gunpowder allegedly used in the manufacture of bombs by Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev came from fireworks. Employees of a New Hampshire fireworks store say the elder Tsarnaev (who died in a confrontation with police) bought about $400 worth of fireworks from the outlet in February.

Whether the bombs could have been made entirely from the contents of the fireworks in question is open to debate. Some in the fireworks industry are skeptical. But in theory, bomb experts say, you could produce a significant blast from using the powder in fireworks mortars combined with a pressure cooker and shrapnel like small nails or BBs.

Why hasn't this possibility come up before? Actually, it has. Remember the Connecticut man who attempted to set off a car bomb in Times Square in 2010? He bought fireworks from a Phantom Fireworks store in Pennsylvania, apparently to use them as a triggering device with the fertilizer, propane tanks and gasoline stuffed in the car.

Fireworks are already federally regulated, but these events ought to raise serious questions about whether the public is protected sufficiently. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission sets limits on the "pyrotechnic composition" of consumer fireworks, but no rules prevent individuals from buying them in bulk, ripping them open and combining their contents.

States and local governments also regulate fireworks, but their rules vary tremendously. As it happens, New Hampshire's laws on the subject are more lax than Massachusetts', so that explains why the suspects may have needed to cross state lines. But New Hampshire's rules are actually more strict than in states like Mississippi or Alabama, where there's little oversight of any kind.

Maryland law is fairly tough by national standards, with consumer fireworks limited mostly to the ground-based "sparkler" variety. But backyard enthusiasts know it's not much trouble to drive to Pennsylvania to purchase more elaborate devices — although it remains illegal for the average Marylander to bring them home and use them.

Are a couple of isolated cases, albeit events most regard as acts of terrorism, enough to justify stricter regulations? That's not yet clear, but certainly those alone should trigger a serious inquiry by the CPSC and Congress. We did, after all, enact regulations on the mass purchase of fertilizer after the Oklahoma City bombing. But that's not the sole reason to pursue revising federal law.

Each year, more than 8,000 Americans are treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms for fireworks-related injuries. In 2010, for instance, as many people were killed by fireworks (three) as died in the marathon bombings.

What's shocking is that the pattern shows little sign of waning despite repeated efforts to warn the general public of the dangers of fireworks, legal and otherwise. Indeed, the time of year when those warnings are trumpeted most loudly is the Fourth of July, and that's also when fireworks-related injuries and deaths remain most likely to occur.

According to the CPSC, about three-quarters of all fireworks-related injuries take place within about two weeks of Independence Day. Many would no doubt be prevented, or made less severe, if more states restricted consumer fireworks to the degree that Maryland has.

This wouldn't mean an end to holiday's public celebrations or the "pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other," as John Adams so famously predicted to Abigail. But it would require that elaborate pyrotechnic displays be left in the hands of licensed professionals.

Setting some sensible federal restrictions on fireworks wouldn't keep anybody from defending themselves or their families, and we're fairly confident it won't impair hunters, so the NRA shouldn't have much to say on the topic. If stricter rules deterred the next domestic terrorist from setting off a bomb, that would be great. But it should be enough to spare teens and others from losing fingers or eyes or suffering other wounds from devices that are better left to the pros anyway.

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