There are always big July Fourth fireworks displays, but it's been illegal to set off your own

Updated 8:43 a.m.

The entire month of July came and went without authorities deciding whether fireworks are legal in Philly.

In fact, an entire nine months passed with a new, updated statewide fireworks law on the books, and Philadelphia officials never decided whether or how it would apply to the city.

For nearly 80 years, airborne fireworks were illegal in the state of Pennsylvania. That changed in October 2017, when the state House repealed the Fireworks Act of 1939 — aka the Fourth of July party-pooper — and signed into law the Fireworks Act of 2017.

Before the new law, Pennsylvanians could only set off ground-based fireworks. (If you had out-of-state ID, you could still buy the more explosive ones, but only if promised to set them off outside Pa.) Under the new law, Pennsylvanians can legally purchase and set off Roman candles, bottle rockets, firecrackers and more.

But this new law might not necessarily apply to Philly.

Why? Because the city hasn’t updated its fire code since 2009.

An outdated code

As it currently stands, Philly’s Fire Code still reads in accordance with the old fireworks law.

It states that residents would need to obtain an operational permit to light most fireworks — and to buy or sell them. Per the code, the possession, manufacture, storage, sale and handling of fireworks are all still illegal in Philly, unless you’ve applied for and obtained appropriate documentation.

That directly contradicts the new state law — and officials aren’t really sure what to do about it.

Philadelphia Police confirmed to Billy Penn that law enforcement must enforce the rules listed in the Fire Code, no matter how long ago they were written.

Of note, there’s no way to tell how often those rules are enforced — PPD doesn’t keep track of fireworks arrests, and hasn’t for the past few years. (Per news reports, there was at least one arrest related to fireworks around this July 4, 2018.)

Meanwhile, a spokesperson from the Fire Dept. admitted they haven’t yet made a determination on how state law might impact local ordinances.

“We’re still evaluating the implications of the state law,” PFD spokesperson Kathy Matheson told Billy Penn.

To revise the city’s Fire Code, PFD would have to work with the Department of Licenses & Inspections. Then, the revisions would have to be passed by City Council and signed into law by the mayor.

Illegal or not? It’s a mess

The back and forth between the state and the city caused some confusion.

This year, several stores in the Philly region were granted temporary permits to sell the newly legalized fireworks — including Keystone Novelties at 1851 S. Columbus Blvd. And some residents seemed to think that the new law meant what it said: that more fireworks were legal in Philly.

Meanwhile, some elected officials contradicted the new law, insisting fireworks were still illegal in the city.

All we know for sure is that the Fourth of July definitely happened in Philly.

And when it comes to the legality of fireworks, most residents didn’t really care either way.

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...