In Defense of Blowing Your Fingers Off on the Fourth of July

What is more American than the freedom to do really dumb, pointless, harmful things?

Fireworks explode overhead at the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument on / Getty Images
• July 4, 2019 5:00 am


Fireworks are awesome. This is objectively true, the clearest evidence being that Sonny Bunch hates them. Other convincing evidence is that every year as the Fourth of July approaches, fire departments and law enforcement put out videos showing the grisly effects of fireworks on dummies and watermelons in an attempt to dissuade people from buying fireworks. Those videos instead remind people about how freaking cool fireworks are.

Every year, some hoity-toity East Coast liberal journalist (other than Sonny, I mean) has to inform us that actually fireworks are bad. "Fireworks are America’s favorite face exploding, dog torturing, bird murdering way to celebrate its birthday," complained one Washington Post writer Monday, relitigating all the familiar complaints about fireworks; they annoy dogs, kill birds, and yes, leave thousands of people with injuries (or "freedom stubs," as I call them).

The animal thing is barely worth a reply. Dogs freak out at thunder, they freak out when a squirrel walks by, they freak out at vacuums. If you own a dog, you've resigned yourself to dealing with a long series of unwarranted freakouts. As for birds, c'mon, we're talking about animals that usually die by yeeting themselves into windows. To die a death as sicknasty as being blown to smithereens mid-air is frankly an honor.

The more serious concern is the human injuries. The Post accurately notes that 9,100 people were harmed by fireworks last year, but as with media coverage of tourist deaths in the Dominican Republic, football deaths, black churches burning down, Black Friday deaths, shark attacks, etc., that number means very little without an idea of how large the underlying dataset is. When considering just how many fireworks are purchased in a given year, the chance of being injured by fireworks is vanishingly small.

As fireworks purchasing laws have loosened, the amount of fireworks purchased every year has increased tenfold, from 29 million pounds in 1976 to a whopping 277.5 million pounds last year. The net amount of injuries has remained basically stable over the years. The result is that the rate of fireworks injuries has plummeted from 38.3 injuries per thousand pounds in 1976 to a record low of 3.2 injuries per thousand pounds in 2018. Put simply, the vast, vast, vast majority of fireworks will operate as intended and damage no one.

We also have to consider the severity of the fireworks injuries that do occur. I'm being rather glib in my headline; most fireworks accidents do not rise to the level of the famous Jason Pierre-Paul injury. It's telling that even that's the popular image of the severity of fireworks. Be careful, kids, fireworks may cripple you so badly you'll still be able to be the NFC Defensive Player of the Week (granted, against the Browns).

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) found in 2015 that about 85 percent of fireworks injuries are "treat-and-release," where someone goes to the hospital, gets treated, and gets sent home. CPSC also conducted a series of telephone interviews with patients in cases that "involved potentially serious injuries and/or hospital admissions." But in follow-up interviews two months later, 90% of those interviewees were completely healed and only a slim amount had lasting damage, severe or minor.

There are of course a handful deaths from fireworks every year– eleven in that 2015 report. That's about one for every 25 million pounds of fireworks purchased. They are typically freak accidents or… well, I'll just quote one:

On June 28, 2015, a 47-year-old male from Michigan died of blunt trauma to the back of his head. According to witnesses and officials, the victim placed a consumer mortar type firework—1-1/4″ in diameter and 4″ to 5″ tall—in a tube to light it. The victim lit the fuse and placed the tube on top of his head. The firework exploded and the victim fell to the ground.

Believe it or not, he was one of three people to die that year by launching fireworks off their heads. "The victim had been consuming alcohol prior to the incident," the report helpfully notes, as if we needed extra context.

I will acknowledge that fireworks are potentially dangerous objects that—when placed in the hands of incompetents, drunks, and daredevils—can result in injury, maiming, and very rarely, death. But what is more American than freedom, and more specifically, the freedom to do really dumb, pointless, harmful shit without the government telling us no? Millions of Americans will celebrate the Fourth this year by smoking, drinking themselves into oblivion, shooting legally available and constitutionally protected firearms, eating horribly unhealthy food, and then driving their unvaccinated children to an Indian casino in a Hummer blitzed while smoking a doobie. You might as well give them explosives.

America is a country whose favorite sport is one in which eleven people slam their heads into eleven other people and give each other concussions. America's fastest growing sport is one in which people jump into giant metal machines and zoom around at 200 miles per hour and then crash in a spectacular fashion. Don't worry though; separating the giant speeding metal machines from the Americans who paid hundreds to thousands of dollars to attend is a chain-link fence.

America is a country where half of Arizona burned down because a Border Patrol agent revealed the gender of his son by shooting an explosive with a gun. America is a country that gave a gun license to a North Dakota man who is completely blind. America is a country where flamethrowers are legal in 48 states. America is a country where people regularly die because they were too obese to buckle up on a roller coaster about to go 75 mph, and they figured, "eh, I'll just wing it." The historians among us will recall America once accidentally blew up its own battleship, and responded by stealing Puerto Rico.

Fireworks are loud, obnoxious, ostentatious, terrifying, reckless, and dangerous. They are, in short, the most American way to celebrate a holiday.

Happy Fourth everyone.

Published under: Data Journalism, opinion