Floridians as young as 16 would no longer have to "lie" when buying bottle rockets or more-powerful fireworks, under a measure that received backing in the state Senate on Wednesday.
Members of the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee, in a 7-4 vote, supported a measure (SB 314) that acknowledges, rather than eliminates, a much-abused and longstanding loophole in the state's ban on fireworks.
Currently the law limits sales to relatively innocuous devices such as sparklers, while banning sales of such things as bottle rockets. However, the loophole allows the sale of aerial and explosive devices as long as the individuals buying the fireworks sign a waiver claiming exemptions from the law for certain agricultural purposes.
The proposal would require people to still sign the waiver, but would allow them to declare they are doing so for personal use.
"This is the, 'We're done lying' bill," committee Chairwoman Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said.
Opponents, including several members of the committee and the state Fire Chiefs Association, contend the proposal could increase injuries and damage from fireworks.
Sen. Gwen Margolis, a Miami Democrat who voted against the measure as she marked her 40th year in the Legislature on Wednesday, said the existing law was crafted after "some really bad scenes" involving fireworks.
Fireworks enthusiast Arie Fry, a 15-year-old Plant City High School freshman, supported Brandes' proposal as he told the Senate committee that he was unable to find any farmer associations that used fireworks to keep birds from their crops, while admitting his mother, Yvonne Fry, regularly signed the agriculture waiver.
"Our laws on fireworks do not seem to serve the needs of the citizens or the farmers," Fry said.
"My mom has to sign a form for when we buy fireworks for personal use that says she's actually going to use them for agricultural use in the state of Florida," he continued. "If we stick with sparklers, smoke bombs or glow worms, she can stay out of the slammer. But my mom knows how much I love fireworks, she risks it."
The measure by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, would allow anyone at least 16 years of age to purchase fireworks and would require buyers to sign a waiver that they are buying the items for personal use and that they understand fireworks are potentially harmful to structures and people.
The bill would require the retailers to have at least $2 million in liability coverage and also allows cities and counties to establish their own regulations on the sale of fireworks.
"If they have concerns, fine, address that at the local level," Brandes said.
Brandes called the existing state law a "facade" because there is no age limit to purchase fireworks, and retailers are not required to verify why individuals claim they are purchasing the fireworks.
"This bill just says let's stop the lying, let's stop the facade," Brandes said. "People are buying fireworks in communities today, they're buying fireworks we specifically pre-empted, that we specifically said we don't want anybody using except for agricultural purposes."
He noted that when he went to a stand recently in Hillsborough County, he was able to purchase "mortar" rounds for $80 and "nobody cares whether you're using them for an agriculture use or not."
"I heard a bird chirp as I launched them off, and fly away, and clearly that was an agricultural use," Brandes added.
Brandes said the age limit is in line with other states.
Alabama has a minimum age of 16 for fireworks purchases. In Georgia, the age is 18.
Wayne Watts, representing the Fire Chiefs Association, noted the damage that can be done by fireworks as he questioned the proposed age limit.
"I have a son who is 18 years old, he's a responsible young man, he's a scout, he's been raised properly. But even at 18 years old he doesn't have the restraint at times to use these responsibly," Watts said. "We're talking about taking something that can have just as much damage as a gunshot and putting it in the hands of 16-year-olds."
The Brandes proposal doesn't go as far as a measure (HB 4005) by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach.
Gaetz's proposal, which was postponed before a scheduled appearance Wednesday at the House Insurance and Banking Subcommittee, would eliminate state restrictions on sales of fireworks, eliminate the definition of "sparklers" and "fireworks" from the law, make all fireworks legal in Florida unless prohibited by federal law and eliminate the role of the state fire marshal in testing and approving fireworks.
Gaetz has said his proposal was crafted with the intent of cutting down on Floridians, particularly those in the Panhandle, from traveling into neighboring states to purchase explosive and aerial fireworks.