Proposal to restrict fireworks fuels partisan split in council


Verbal sparks flew at a County Council hearing last night on whether Howard County should be exempt from state fireworks laws that last year began allowing large, ground-based sparklers in Maryland.

Fireworks industry lobbyists and a Virginia business owner argued that making more sparklers available reduces injuries and the use of illegal explosives around July 4, but Howard's police and fire chiefs supported a bill backed by the council's three Democrats and County Executive James N. Robey that would make only small hand-held sparklers legal again.

The council's two Republicans criticized the measure as an unnecessary infringement on people's Independence Day enjoyment.

Western County Republican Allan H. Kittleman said he can't persuade his four young children to use the small, wand-like sparklers. "They don't want to do that because it's no fun," he said.

"It's part of our national heritage," testified James Peters, a lobbyist and safety consultant to the fireworks industry.

Dennis F. Rasmussen, a former Baltimore County executive acting as a lobbyist for the U.S. Fireworks Safety Commission, another industry group, noted statistics from 2000 that fireworks sales have jumped 70 percent nationally in eight years while injuries declined by 14 percent over that period.

More children are injured in mishaps involving bicycles, steps and even pens and pencils than by fireworks, Rasmussen said. "We can't legislate to the lowest common denominator."

But county Police Chief Wayne Livesay and Fire Chief Joseph Herr said the law banning ground-based fireworks in Howard is needed to prevent accidents, a concept that the Democrats on the council -- and a representative of the county PTA Council -- said they support.

"I see absolutely no public good coming out of allowing people to use these devices," west Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman said after Herr reported that the law would ban 643 devices now legal in Maryland.

Nationally, Herr said, there were 11,000 fireworks injuries and 10 deaths in 2000, including 5,500 children under age 14 who were hurt.

"Let's not wait until a Warwick," east Columbia Democrat David A. Rakes said, referring to the recent nightclub fire in Rhode Island that killed almost 100 people.

Livesay said his department took a 15-year-old to a number of stores and roadside tents selling fireworks in Howard County last summer, and the teen was able to buy at almost all of them despite a minimum age limit of 16 in the Maryland law.

But Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon noted the law was new, and Rasmussen said the state completed regulations for its administration in May, shortly before the prime selling season began.

"It's not that I want to hurt children," Kittleman said. "I just believe in liberty and freedom and parental responsibility."

The Democrats said the bill would prevent accidents of the type that heavily damaged a house in Harford County on July 1 when a lit ground display was thrown from a car occupied by four teen-agers. The device set a bush on fire next to a home which also burned.

After the fire, Harford changed its county law. Baltimore City and Ocean City, and Montgomery and Prince George's counties, are also exempt from the state law.

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