It’s approaching dusk on July 4th. In the cooling air, people all across the U.S. prepare to honor a very American tradition: blowing things up. Mom, a little wobbly after a couple glasses of hard lemonade, drags a damp box out of the basement that smells of mold and sulfur. The kids are jittery with excitement, hoping the M-80s are still dry and that they don’t get stuck with the sparklers again. Family fun, but is it legal?
Answer: The M-80s are definitely not legit, but the answer about the rest of the box depends on several factors, including what the explosive items are, where and when they were purchased, and where they will be discharged.
This article discusses the legality of fireworks in California. For more information about other explosives and fireworks laws, see our topic page on Explosives and Fireworks.
Maybe it’s an homage to the rockets’ red glare, but Americans love to light up things that go boom in honor of their nation’s birth. The unfortunate, though perhaps not inevitable, collateral damage is serious injury and even death to celebrants. Prior to 1950, few states regulated fireworks, but concern about the number of injuries prompted enactment of laws across the country. Yet, in spite of these laws, from June 17 to July 17 every year, an average of 200 people a day show up in emergency rooms with firework-related injuries, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Most of those injured are children. Injuries to eyes and fingers are most common and more than half of the injuries involve burns.
Even the lowly sparkler, bane of every young child’s Fourth of July experience, burns at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That temperature will melt metal, so it will certainly severely burn and scar skin, causing tremendous pain and trauma to the burn victim. In fact, sparklers are the number one cause of reported injuries due to fireworks. Fear the sparkler!
The federal government regulates fireworks under the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act (49 U.S.C. 1801) and the Federal Hazardous Substances Act (15 U.S.C. § 1261). But, the federal government allows the states to enact their own, more stringent laws regulating fireworks. Of course, if you are caught at the state line with a box of fireworks that you bought in Nevada, you fall under the jurisdiction of the federal regulations concerning transportation of fireworks, as well as under the California state laws.
California State Law
California enacted the State Fireworks Law in 1973. (Cal. Health & Safety Code §§ 12500 and following.) Under that law, the state classifies the items that qualify as "fireworks," specifies who may possess or sell them, and dictates when and where they may be set off.
Counties within the state may enact their own ordinances, and most have. These local laws can mirror state law, but cannot add to the rules in the State Fireworks Law. That's because the Legislature intended the state scheme to totally occupy the field of fireworks legislation.
What are fireworks?
Under California law, “fireworks” include any device containing chemical elements that do not require oxygen to burn (which normal combustible items require); and that produce audible, visual, mechanical, or thermal (heat) pyrotechnic effects for entertainment. (Cal. Health & Safety Code § 12511.) Skyrockets, roman candles, rockets, sparklers, party poppers, paper caps, fountains, and smoke bombs are listed in the law as examples of fireworks.
Private citizens who are not licensed by the state to discharge explosives are strictly prohibited from possessing and/or discharging (and retailers are prohibited from selling) certain fireworks that state law lists as “dangerous.” These fireworks include:
- any that contain arsenic sulfide, arsenates, or arsenites, boron, chlorates, gallates or gallic acid, magnesium, mercury salts, phosphorous, picrates or picric acid, thiocyanates, titanium, or zirconium
- skyrockets and rockets (anything that shoots up and explodes)
- roman candles and anything that discharges a ball of fire into the air
- chasers (anything that darts or travels along ground during discharge)
- sparklers more than 10 inches in length or one-fourth of one inch in diameter
- fireworks designed and intended by the manufacturer to create the element of surprise upon the user (the exploding cigar is a classic example)
- torpedoes of all kinds that explode on impact
- fireworks kits, and
- other fireworks designated as unsafe by the State Fire Marshal.
(Cal. Health & Safety Code § 12505.) This list covers virtually every type of fireworks.
What then, you may wonder, can a patriotic citizen of California legally blow up to celebrate Independence Day? Only those labeled “safe and sane.”
“Safe and Sane Fireworks”
Unique among the states, the California State Fireworks Law explicitly defines what is “safe and sane”—at least in terms of fireworks. The law defines “safe and sane fireworks” as any that do not come within the definition of “dangerous fireworks,” listed above, and that are labeled as safe and sane. (Cal. Health & Safety Code § 12529.)
In addition to restricting the types of fireworks that may be sold, California imposes other restrictions.
Limited dates of sale
While safe and sane fireworks may be legally sold in California, that is true only for a very brief and specific window of time each year. Any retailer selling safe and sane fireworks (who must be licensed by the state to make such sales) may sell the legal fireworks onlyfrom 12 noon on June 28 through 12 noon July 6 each year. (Cal. Health & Safety Code § 12599.) Indeed, the license for a retailer to sell safe and sane fireworks expires automatically at noon on July 6 and the license must be renewed each year by June 15.
Agricultural and wildlife uses
In addition to limited safe and sane fireworks for entertainment purposes, farmers may possess and discharge certain other types of fireworks to scare off birds and animals in order to prevent crop damage. (Cal. Health & Safety Code § 12503.) These can include small explosives whose noise drives off birds and animals, or flash pots whose bright lights have a similar effect. Any farmer wishing to use such fireworks must obtain a permit from the state. (Cal. Health & Safety Code § 12678.)
No discharge in certain locations
California law prohibits the use of even safe and sane fireworks where there is a likelihood that the discharge of the fireworks will injure another person or persons. (Cal. Health & Safety Code § 12680.) And, it is always illegal to intentionally discharge fireworks with the intent of creating chaos, fear, or panic in other people.
It is illegal to discharge fireworks within 100 feet of a location where gasoline or any other flammable liquid is stored. (Cal. Health & Safety Code § 12679.)
No sale to minors
It is unlawful in California for anyone to sell safe and sane fireworks to a person under the age of 16. (Cal. Health & Safety Code § 12689.)
Public Displays and Special Effects
Cities and private groups hold public fireworks shows on the Fourth (and on other occasions). These events are specially designated by state law and require permits. (Cal. Health & Safety Code § 12524.) Such permitted public events may include dangerous fireworks discharged by licensed operators.
And, George Lucas can blow up the Golden Gate Bridge—not really, but he and others who hold a state permit can use “pyrotechnic devices” to create special effects for theatrical, movie, television or other productions, including those before a live audience. (Cal. Health & Safety Code §§ 12525, 12532.)
It is a misdemeanor crime to violate the California Fireworks Safety Act. (Cal. Health & Safety Code § 12700.) A person convicted of this crime may face a sentence of up to one year in jail, a fine of $500 to $1,000, or both.
A person convicted of possessing not more than 5,000 pounds of dangerous fireworks may face a sentence of up to one year in prison, a fine of $5,000 to $10,000, or both. (Cal. Health & Safety Code § 12700 (3).) The fines increase for possession of greater amounts of dangerous fireworks possessed and for the sale of dangerous fireworks to anyone under the age of 18. (Cal. Health & Safety Code § 12702.)
Stay Safe, Stay Sane, Have Fun
While the legal repercussions of violating the California State Fireworks Law are significant, the risk of physical injury is also great and may have much longer and more tragic effect. If you have any questions about the legality of fireworks in your area, contact a lawyer. A safe Fourth is a happy Fourth—the emergency room (or jail) is no place to celebrate independence.