Fireworks Sale and Use on Indian Reservations

Is it legal for tribes to sell fireworks when it's not legal elsewhere in a state?

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated June 30, 2020

If your city, county, or state doesn't allow sale or use of fireworks (or certain fireworks), is it true you can just head to Indian Country to load up on supplies for your celebration? In typical lawyer-speak: It depends. Indian tribes are governed by a complex maze of federal, state, and tribal laws, and no one rule covers it all. Plus, many people won't stay on the reservation to celebrate. So you need to consider what laws apply once you leave tribal lands with your stockpile of fireworks.

This article will not tackle untangling the web of laws applying to Indian and tribal reservations. Rather, it discusses the complexity of these laws, what's important to know, and how to look up your area's restrictions on fireworks.

What Laws Apply on Indian or Tribal Reservations?

How complicated can it really be? Well, to start, the laws that apply on Indian or tribal reservations generally depend on: (a) which state the reservation is located in, (b) which federal laws apply for that state, (c) whether the state's fireworks law is criminal or civil in nature, and (d) whether the state has abandoned any of its criminal jurisdiction over the tribe. Then add on some court decisions and treaty provisions.

Generally speaking, in some states, tribes are not subject to state laws and instead are guided by federal laws and tribal laws. In other states, the state's criminal laws (which could include restrictions on fireworks sales) apply on tribal land—meaning, if state law prohibits sales of certain fireworks, those same restrictions likely apply on tribal land. (Quechan Indian Tribe v. McMullen, 984 F.2d 304 (9th Cir. 1993).) And to make it more confusing, state law might apply to certain tribal lands within the state but not others.

Short of untangling this web, for practical purposes, what should you know before buying fireworks in Indian Country?

What Should I Know Before Buying Fireworks in Indian Country?

If you're able to legally buy fireworks in Indian Country, it's important to remember those fireworks are only legal on the reservation. Once you cross the reservation border, you might potentially violate the fireworks laws that apply in the city, county, or state you reentered.

Even if the state you're in allows some fireworks, don't assume you're in the clear. Some cities and counties' laws on fireworks are more restrictive than the state law. For instance, the state of California allows the use of "safe and sane" fireworks but many California cities and counties prohibit them. You need to check out restrictions that cover your city, county, and state. (More on this below.)

Some tribes designate a place for non-Indians to set off fireworks before they leave tribal land. However, not many individuals drive to Indian Country just to buy and set off fireworks on the reservation. Most individuals are driving those fireworks back home for their celebrations.

How Do I Determine What Fireworks Laws and Restrictions Apply?

Despite the legal complexities, it's fairly easy to figure out what laws and restrictions apply in your state or local jurisdiction. Especially around the holidays for the Fourth of July and New Years, states and local jurisdictions post prohibitions and restrictions on their government websites.

Go to the local government or state's webpage and look for announcements on fireworks or run searches on the word "fireworks." Other good places to look include webpages for your state fire marshal, state patrol, local fire department, sheriff's department, or police department. You can also call or send an email to your city or county government office.

As for tribal laws, it's best to look up the tribal government webpage to learn about what regulations apply. The Bureau of Indian Affairs maintains a list of federally-recognized tribes in the United States, and the National Conference of State Legislatures provides a list of both federally- and state-recognized tribes.

Stay Safe, Stay Legal

If you have questions regarding fireworks laws in your area, contact a local attorney.

In addition to keeping it legal when it comes to fireworks, be sure to keep it safe. Thousands of individuals are injured every year from fireworks-related incidents. Even those sparklers that kids love to play are dangerous. Sparklers burn at 1,800 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Better safe than sorry.

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