This article discusses the legality of fireworks specifically in California. For more information about other explosives and fireworks laws, see our topic page on Explosives and Fireworks.
California enacted the State Fireworks Law in 1973. Under this law, the state classifies items that qualify as "fireworks," specifies who may possess or sell them, and dictates when and where they may be set off.
Even though state law permits certain sales and uses of firework, cities and counties within the state may enact their own ordinances on fireworks. These local laws may prohibit or regulate the sale, use, or discharge of fireworks. Be sure to check your local ordinances or city or county website for more information.
(Cal. Health & Safety Code §§ 12500 and following (2020).)
Under California law, "fireworks" include any device that:
Skyrockets, roman candles, rockets, sparklers, party poppers, paper caps, fountains, and smoke bombs are listed in the law as examples of fireworks. (Cal. Health & Safety Code § 12511 (2020).)
Private citizens who are not licensed by the state to discharge explosives are strictly prohibited from possessing and discharging (and retailers are prohibited from selling) certain fireworks that state law lists as "dangerous." Dangerous fireworks include:
(Cal. Health & Safety Code §§ 12505, 12677 (2020).)
So which fireworks can a patriotic Californian legally purchase to celebrate Independence Day? Only those labeled "safe and sane."
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. You can find a list of safe and sane fireworks on the State Fire Marshal's webpage. (Cal. Health & Safety Code § 12529 (2020).)
In addition to restricting the types of fireworks that may be sold, California imposes other restrictions.
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 only from noon on June 28 through noon July 6 each year. 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. (Cal. Health & Safety Code § 12599 (2020).)
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. 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 §§ 12503, 12678 (2020).)
California law prohibits the use of dangerous fireworks where there is a likelihood that the discharge of the fireworks will injure another person or persons. And it is illegal to discharge fireworks with the intent of creating chaos, fear, or panic in other people. (Cal. Health & Safety Code § 12680 (2020).)
It is also illegal to discharge fireworks within 100 feet of a location where gasoline or any other flammable liquid is stored. (Cal. Health & Safety Code § 12679 (2020).)
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 (2020).)
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. 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 §§ 12575 to 12577 (2020).)
It is a misdemeanor crime to violate the California State Fireworks Law. 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.
The penalties increase for possession of greater amounts of dangerous fireworks and for the sale of dangerous fireworks to anyone under the age of 18. (Cal. Health & Safety Code §§ 12700, 12702 (2020).)
The federal government makes it unlawful to transport fireworks across state lines to a state where use or possession is prohibited (this prohibition doesn't apply to commercial transport). A violation carries a penalty of up to one year's imprisonment and a fine. (18 U.S.C. § 836 (2020).) 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.
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. As a party host, you could also be liable for firework burn injuries.
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.