A good rule of thumb is that there's no activity so dangerous that authorities can't make it worse by restricting it and driving it underground. Last week, the Los Angeles Police Department demonstrated that point when it stole tons of illegal fireworks from a black market vendor, set aside a small proportion for on-site detonation, and promptly blew up the neighborhood and injured 17 people. As the cherry on top, the guy who had (precariously) stored the fireworks without incident until police showed up and fumbled the job is the one facing federal charges from the embarrassed authorities.
"What was supposed to be a safe operation to destroy a cache of illegal fireworks turned into a 'total, catastrophic failure' of a Los Angeles police bomb squad vehicle that resulted in a massive explosion in South L.A., rocking a neighborhood and injuring 17 people, including 10 law enforcement officers," KABC reported of the June 30 incident.
The explosion occurred after police arrived at the home of Arturo Ceja III in response to a complaint that he had illegal fireworks—initially reported as 5,000 pounds, but later revised upwards to 32,000 pounds—stored in his backyard. The fireworks, "including aerial displays and large homemade fireworks containing explosive materials" according to the United States Attorney's Office for the Central District of California, were reportedly purchased in Nevada for resale in California.
It's possible—even likely—that neighbors dropped a dime on Ceja out of concern that tons of homemade fireworks stacked on his back patio threatened a spectacular but extremely unfortunate Independence Day display. Instead, dangerous consequences had to await the arrival of the authorities. Things didn't go as planned when the LAPD decided to detonate "improvised explosive devices"—some of the homemade fireworks described by the U.S. Attorney's office.
"Following established protocols, they then transferred that material into a total containment vehicle," LAPD Chief Michael Moore described in a June 30 press conference. "This is a semitruck, multi-ton, commercial-grade transport. Within it is an iron chamber that is meant to house explosive material that can be safely detonated and its pressure vented in a manner that renders that material safe… this vessel should have been able to safely dispose of that material."
Instead, the cops blew up the neighborhood, causing extensive injuries and property damage.
That Arturo Ceja III and people like him exist across California and elsewhere is no surprise. People enjoy fireworks, the possession and use of which are severely restricted by law in California. Inevitably, underground dealers emerge to satisfy demand that can't be met by legal sources. "Fireworks in California can be sold for as much as four times what purchasers pay for the fireworks in Nevada," the U.S. Attorney's office helpfully points out.
Black market dealers aren't necessarily the sorts of professionals who adhere to standards dictated by industries and insurance companies. They offer commercial-grade rockets mixed with homemade devices and store their goods in residential neighborhoods. That can have nasty outcomes.
"In March of this year, a home was rocked by explosions caused by a massive cache of illegal fireworks," KABC reported earlier this month. "Two cousins were killed in the blast and subsequent fire."
State and local authorities have stepped up enforcement, but that's had little impact.
"California residents already know the struggle to rein in the use of illegal fireworks," Priya Arora noted in The New York Times in mid-June. "Residents in Fresno have made hundreds of complaints to law enforcement agencies and City Council members in recent weeks about the almost nightly sound of popping fireworks," Arora added.
As authorities should know by now, imposing legal restrictions on any popular good or service does less to limit availability than it does to drive the market beyond control and into the hands of criminals. We've seen that with alcohol, the sex trade, drugs, guns, and now fireworks. Prohibitionists don't eliminate the things they hate; they bring us moonshine, sex workers dodging both cops and pimps, smuggled heroin of uncertain purity, garage-built ghost guns, and explosives piled in backyards. Once a market is driven underground, quality becomes unpredictable, business practices are sketchy, and safety standards take a turn for the not-so-safe.
That's not to say that legal markets are entirely without risk. On July 4, a cache of commercial fireworks blew up in Ocean City, Maryland, as professionals were setting up for a scheduled display. "One employee with the fireworks company suffered minor injuries," according to WGAL. "Police said no one else was hurt."
Compare that toll to the two deaths in the Ontario, California fireworks explosion—or to the 17 people injured when the LAPD tried to dispose of illegal fireworks. Legal markets can't guarantee perfect safety in a world in which that's never an option. But they do create environments in which industry standards, legal liability, insurance rules, public opinion, and regulatory pressures act to encourage responsible behavior and reduce risk.
On the other hand, if you want to maximize the dangers of any activity, go ahead and impose tight restrictions or prohibitions. Then sit back and watch as people who don't give a damn about rules move in and set the standards—and face off against enforcers who can be as dangerous as criminals.
Official attitudes don't have to be restrictive and risk-maximizing.
"This is the time of year that people always ask us about obtaining a fireworks permit," the Marlborough, New Hampshire Police Department posted on its Facebook page the day before the LAPD blew up a neighborhood it was "protecting" from illegal fireworks. "Marlborough does not have a fireworks ordinance so permits are not required. If you insist, you can issue yourself a permit using the template pictured below. Please keep safety a priority, as freedom is best celebrated with ten fingers."
Attached was a picture of Ron Swanson, the libertarian character from Parks and Recreation, holding a paper with text saying "I can do what I want."
There are all sorts of goods and activities in this world that come with a bit of danger attached. Minimizing the associated risks requires keeping those things legal so that people so inclined can enjoy them in a reasonably responsible way. The alternative to legalization isn't an absence of peril; it's a guy stacking contraband on his back patio until cops come rumbling down the street to "protect" the public with ill-considered tactics that blow out windows and put people in the hospital.