Happy 4th! Let’s ban the use of backyard fireworks

This one’s easy for me: I love my dog, and my dog hates fireworks.

Besides, while I enjoyed quite an array of Fourth-of-July fireworks spectacles at ballparks across America during my sportswriting years, I’ve never grasped the appeal of backyard boom-booms, even as a kid.

So, with another Independence Day celebration only days away, I’m really hoping local police officers and sheriff’s deputies will finally crack down on people who’d rather shoot off firecrackers, bottle rockets and Roman candles in my neighborhood than cheer the public fireworks display at Riverside Park.

But that’s not going to happen, even though Florida law makes it illegal – a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by a year in jail and a $1,000 fine – for private citizens to set off fireworks that explode or fly through the air for recreational and entertainment purposes.

It’s not going to happen because, well, it can’t.

There are, quite simply, too many fireworks and not enough badges to enforce a law that, from a practical standpoint, is unenforceable.

In other words: The law is a joke – so much so that you’re more likely to be cited for jaywalking in downtown Vero Beach than to get arrested for the illegal use of fireworks in South Beach, or McAnsh Park, or in some residential community in the unincorporated county, particularly on the Fourth of July or New Year’s Eve.

The state legislators who passed the silly law must have been chuckling when they voted in favor of making fireworks, except for sparklers, legal to purchase in Florida but illegal to use – with one absurd exception.

Those wanting to buy explosive and aerial fireworks may legally do so if they sign a form promising to use them only to scare off birds on agricultural land or at fish hatcheries.

Not that anything will happen to them if they lie.

Nobody’s keeping track.

You go to the fireworks store. You sign the form and pay. And, just like that, you’ve added some pop to your holiday.

Even if law enforcement does happen to catch you shooting off fireworks, you’re probably not going to get arrested. Your fireworks might be confiscated, depending on the circumstances. Most times, though, you’ll get off with a warning.

In fact, neither Vero Beach Police Chief David Currey nor Indian River County Sheriff’s Maj. Eric Flowers could recall the last time their agencies arrested anyone for using fireworks illegally.

One reason is that the law requires officers or deputies to see the suspects lighting the fireworks before they can make arrests. Merely possessing the fireworks isn’t enough.

Both Currey and Flowers said their agencies respond to every fireworks complaint they receive, and they get plenty of them in the days leading to – and sometimes after – July 4.

Usually, the callers complain about the noise, especially if the fireworks are being set off late at night. Some callers say they and their children are being kept awake. Others say the loud popping sounds are upsetting their pets, especially dogs.

Often, however, the callers don’t know exactly where the fireworks are being used, only that they’re close enough to be a nuisance.

“That makes it tough,” Flowers said. “We’ll send a deputy out there, but it’s a challenge when you don’t know where they are. And the noise can be coming from multiple places.”

Another reason there aren’t more fireworks arrests – perhaps the primary reason – is that our local law enforcement agencies don’t want to make criminals of residents who are engaging in a traditional activity many people consider appropriate for the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve.

They want everyone to enjoy the holiday, and they are willing to let people have fun with fireworks, even though it is against the law, as long as they do it safely and are respectful of their neighbors.

Unfortunately, not everyone in the local fireworks crowd abides by those rules. Too often, law enforcement’s good-will gesture is exploited. Too many of those using fireworks start shooting them off days before the holiday, sometimes for hours each night, occasionally after 11 p.m.

Worse, some of them ignore requests to stop from their neighbors, who then must wrestle with the decision to call 911 and complain, which can escalate into bigger troubles.

People can become emotional when they believe their neighbors are being inconsiderate, disturbing and possibly even endangering their families.

So, while the law prohibiting the recreational use of fireworks might be among the most abused and least enforced of Florida’s statutes, we’re not talking about a victim-less crime – and I’m not referring only to the injuries, fires and property damage connected to these store-bought explosives.

I’m referring to the impact on neighbors, who’ve done nothing to deserve this barrage of bad manners.

I’m also referring to the impact on the neighbors’ pets, particularly dogs, who are often so frightened by these blasts that they become stressed, especially when the noise continues for hours.

According to Janet Winikoff, marketing director for the Humane Society of Vero Beach and Indian River County, more dogs and cats are turned in at animal shelters or reported missing nationally on July 4-5 than at any time during the year.

The reason, she said, is fireworks.

“Dogs left outside can become agitated and break loose,” Winikoff said, urging owners to make sure their pets have collars, ID tags and micro-chips so they can be identified if they’re lost and found. “And if they’re fenced in, dogs that don’t normally dig will do it. Even on walks, they can get spooked and try to run off.

“The safest place for them is at home, but even there they can get frightened and disoriented.”

She suggested creating a pet sanctuary in the house – a quiet, comfortable room where you can turn on music or a TV to distract from the noise of the fireworks. If necessary, she said to consult your veterinarian about homeopathic remedies or a mild tranquilizer.

“The key,” Winikoff said, “is to keep them calm and happy.”

At my house, however, that’s probably not going happen, no matter what we do.

My dog hates fireworks, and I don’t blame her. I blame our lawmakers, who, if they possessed even a hint of wisdom and courage, could remove the bird-scaring loophole and ban the use of recreational fireworks.

It’s that easy.

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