If bombs bursting in air keep you awake this week, thank your elected state officials. They’ve already thanked the fireworks industry, which has made more political contributions to Indiana candidates since 2000 than candidates in any other state.
The result, arguably, is one of the least restrictive fireworks laws in the nation. As many Hoosiers can attest, the $844,000 contributed to Indiana candidates since 2000 seemed to blow away common sense in regulating a demonstrably dangerous product.
Indiana retailers can sell mortars, Roman candles, artillery shells and aerial explosives with names like Killer Alligator and Thump Junkie.
By comparison, Illinois officials have accepted only $24,000 from the pyrotechnics industry since 2000. They restrict most fireworks to professional handlers, allowing the general public to buy only sparklers, snakes and other small novelties. Consumer fireworks are banned outright in Delaware, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey.
The Wholesale Fireworks Users Association has contributed $466,190 to Indiana candidates and political committees over the past 14 years, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Greg Shelton, whose Shelton Fireworks operates seven Indiana warehouses, including a location in Fremont, alone has contributed more than $106,000 to Indiana officials.
What was particularly surprising for me was that Indiana candidates received substantially more than those in states that typically have much more expensive elections, said Zach Holden, the researcher who compiled the Explosive Contributions report for the nonpartisan institute. During the period, candidates for governor of Indiana received more than $170,000, which surpasses the totals raised by all candidates and parties in most states, including traditionally expensive states like California, New York and Texas.
Former Fort Wayne mayor and legislator Win Moses said the fireworks wholesalers were an aggressive lobby at the Statehouse, particularly the industry’s political action committee, in the years before Indiana’s current law was approved in 2007.
They left no stone unturned in working to change the law to their advantage, Moses said. There was even a period where they managed to add a fee to sales that went directly to their political fund. They would contribute directly to people who would see to it that the days and hours for fireworks would be extended.
Moses worked with Rep. Phil GiaQuinta and Rep. Phyllis Pond, who died last year, to restrict fireworks use, but the industry has its own representatives. House Speaker Pro Tem P. Eric Turner, R-Cicero, lobbies in other states for the pyrotechnics industry. Rep. Bob Morris, R-Fort Wayne, operates retail fireworks locations.
Moses said – to his chagrin – Indiana firefighters traded support for a lax fireworks law for a 5 percent public safety fee tacked on sales, dedicated to a fund for regional training expenses.
Sheryl Mourey, critical care administrative director at St. Joseph Hospital, would like to see some of that money flow back to communities for good, solid education about the dangers of fireworks. She said she’s seen changes in the severity of injuries over the 15 years she’s managed St. Joe’s Burn Center, one of only three in the state. Surgery and skin grafting can be the result in the worst of the fireworks cases.
The injuries used to come primarily from sparklers, she said, but metal sparklers are rarely found these days. Today, burns from firecrackers and bottle rockets are common. Some victims – always teenage boys, according Mourey – disassemble fireworks and combine their contents, with the expected result when lit.
I can tell you there has not been a year that we haven’t seen (fireworks injuries), she said, noting some injuries are tied to large mortars lit from tubes. After they’ve been used for some time, the tubes can become clogged and, if not secured, launch explosives toward unsuspecting bystanders.
We’ve had those stray fireworks hit an innocent person, she said.
The result is a tremendous cost for the victims, but a small one for the political interests who invested wisely in Indiana.