Phantom Fireworks, just outside Chester, Pennsylvania

At Phantom Fireworks just outside Chester, one of the biggest, baddest fireworks sits in a red and black box in the back corner of aisle six. It’s called the X9 Panoramic Finale, it shoots off nine rockets once the fuse is lit and it costs $200. They sell frequently this time of year.

Last week, a guy came into this store and spent $4,700 on fireworks for his backyard Fourth of July celebration. Employees routinely sell a “Grounds For Divorce” package that has a plethora of explosives totaling more than $1,500 in cost. But everyone buying these fireworks from Phantom, just outside Philly, is coming in from out of state, usually Delaware or New Jersey.

Have “Pennsylvania” listed on your driver’s license? Sorry, you’re relegated to just aisle two, where the only fireworks you can legally buy and set off are sparklers and fireworks that literally aren’t allowed to leave the ground.

That’s just how this state’s fireworks laws work. Pennsylvania residents can’t buy “consumer-grade” fireworks in the state (bottle rockets, roman candles, mortars, etc.) but if you’re from elsewhere, you can sign a form that promises you’ll take the explosives back to your home state… and then buy the actual fireworks in PA stores.

Technically, if you’re from Pennsylvania, you can go to other states and buy the big fireworks there while sometimes those residents can’t. For example, if you’re following New Jersey law, you’ll get the fireworks out of the state. If you’re following Pennsylvania’s, you won’t bring them in.

“The laws are conflicting, and we just hope people do it safely,” Phantom Fireworks Manager Erik Gaughran said this week, adding that Phantom follows Pennsylvania laws because that’s where the store is physically based. “But there’s really no benefit of capping what PA residents can buy.”

Now, some lawmakers want to change the 76-year-old state statute that says Pennsylvanians can’t buy the big fireworks in-state. They say doing so would improve tax revenue and job creation. Fireworks enthusiasts? They just want to blow stuff up.

Why you can’t shoot fireworks off the ground

In 1939, Pennsylvania enacted its original fireworks law that prohibited the sale of fireworks to Pennsylvanians, but allowed fireworks to be “shipped” out of state. That law has since been amended to include new regulations regarding the sounds and visibility of certain fireworks, but the general rules still apply.

Temporary pop-up tents that show up around this time of year will often sell fireworks only legal for Pennsylvanians: Sparklers, grounded fountains and small poppers. Bottle rockets and larger fireworks are all illegal for residents to purchase and set off in-state.

When customers go into permanent stores like Phantom, they’re immediately carded at the front door, bar-style. If you’ve got an out-of-state license, clerks take your card, scan it through a system and print out a contract which requires signers agree that all consumer-level fireworks will be taken outside the state and will be used while following that state’s rules.

If those out-of-state residents don’t take ’em out? They can be cited for setting off illegal fireworks in Pennsylvania. So can Pennsylvania residents who bring in fireworks from out of state. But look outside any Fourth of July, and it’s easy to see that plenty get away with it. Philadelphia Police say they don’t keep track of the number of citations they issue each year for illegal fireworks, and they won’t be using additional personnel this weekend to enforce the laws.

The only way Pennsylvania residents can get around the rules and shoot off the consumer level fireworks, AKA the real ones, is if they obtain a permit through their municipality. (Businesses that perform fireworks shows for profit have to be certified through the Office of the Attorney General.) In Philly, residents can apply through the city and post a $500 “bond” before their display to cover possible damages.

But some believe this is too much of hassle just to blow things up.

Fireworks at Phantom Fireworks in Chester

What might change

Legislators have tried over the years to make it easier for Pennsylvania residents to get the good fireworks, to little avail. But lawmakers think now there’s more appetite in Harrisburg to legalize consumer fireworks because additional taxes could mean more revenue for a state that’s struggling to figure out the best ways to bring in money.

Last week, three state senators introduced legislation that would lift the prohibition on the sale of consumer fireworks and allow businesses to sell things like bottle rockets, Roman candles and mortars to Pennsylvania residents without the need for a permit. In addition to the current six percent sales tax, the legislation also allows for lawmakers to enact a yet-to-be-decided excise tax that would go toward fire departments and safety enforcement.

Michael Rader, spokesman for Sen. Elder Vogel (R-Beaver), said changing the law is about convenience.

“The current law forces Pennsylvanians to go over the border into Maryland and Ohio and purchase fireworks,” he said. “We’re just making sure that we have easy access for Pennsylvanians.”

Fireworks enthusiasts are generally supportive of the new legislation — so long as safety measures are followed. Howard Fry, a Johnstown resident and president of the Pennsylvania Pyrotechnic Artists Association (that exists!), holds a permit to perform small-scale fireworks displays in Pennsylvania. He says safety regulations will be imperative to implementing the widespread use of consumer fireworks in Pennsylvania, especially on holidays.

“Pennsylvania is insanely safe with this because (fireworks) can’t go in the air and can’t bang,” he said. “So that really just means you go to Walmart and just get sparklers…we gotta educate the public because it’s dangerous. There’s no doubt about it.”

But lawmakers are pushing the economic aspect. Gaughran, the Phantom manager, said that if legislation passes to allow Pennsylvania residents to buy the big ones, the chain store would probably have to open three or four more stores in just the Delaware Valley to handle the new clientele.

“And even more,” he said, “is we could actually sell to people in the neighborhood. We could market here and sponsor Little League games and actually be part of the community.”

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.