We Shouldn’t Ban Sky Lanterns
On August 4, 2015, City Council will consider introducing an ordinance which will ban the sale and use of Sky Lanterns within the City of Sterling Heights. Reducing or eliminating the use of Sky Lanterns is a good idea, but I believe this ordinance will be unenforceable and thus a bad law.
As has been documented in many places, Sky Lanterns, although beautiful and a sight to behold when released, represent a serious fire hazard owing to the vagaries of the wind and the possibility that they may come into contact with flammable materials on the ground before their fuel supply is exhausted. There is no question they are dangerous. However, an ordinance will not prevent their use. At best, it might cut down somewhat on the frequency of their use, but at the cost of adding to the problem of an already overburdened Police Department on “fireworks nights.”
- Fireworks laws were never effective at preventing the sale and use of fireworks to and by the people who wanted them. I have spent my entire life in the State of Michigan, and for most of those forty-seven years any firework that left the ground or went bang! was illegal. Yet the air was reliably clouded with smoke and filled with the loud report of firecrackers every July 4th. How could this be? Simple: people could buy fireworks from out-of-state vendors, and the police were overwhelmed to the point they couldn’t enforce the law. Effectively, the people overruled the ban. There is no reason to expect this law would be any different.
- The effectiveness of any law is dependent upon people understanding it and agreeing with it. I recall one time about ten years ago being so upset by a distant neighbor’s use of fireworks after 11PM on a weekday night that I drove over to discuss it with him. The guy was setting off some pretty powerful stuff, and it could be heard for hundreds of yards. When I got there, he made an important point: how could these things be illegal when one could buy them in the parking lot of the grocery store? The fact is, people will still be able to purchase Sky Lanterns after this law has passed. They are readily available online, and surrounding communities that don’t enact a ban will still have them available for purchase. People who want them will still be able to get them very easily, and with the recent legalization of fireworks in the state, will not understand why some are allowed and some aren’t.
- This will be an unpopular law, regardless of the number of complaints the city receives about fireworks. We cannot expect that people will follow a law that is unpopular, unenforceable, and difficult to understand. Regardless of the number of complaints about fireworks, they are wildly popular. Realize there would be no complaints if there were not many, many people purchasing and using fireworks in celebration of certain holidays. Therefore, it is not a huge leap of logic to conclude that a large number of people will not be happy with a law that once again restricts the use of fireworks. When large groups of people are unhappy with a law, they ignore it. And when large groups of people ignore a law, it becomes impossible to enforce. The national 55MPH speed limit is now a distant memory, but when it was enacted in the 1970s it was terrifically unpopular. Songs were written about how bad the law was. People routinely ignored the limit, and this led to them ignoring speed limits in general. Scofflaws were created in wholesale quantities by the 55MPH limit, and scofflaws don’t limit themselves to ignoring just one law.
- The Police Department already cannot enforce the fireworks restrictions on the books. In the words of City Manager Mark Vanderpool, it is extremely difficult for the police to enforce the restrictions that have already been enacted regarding fireworks. Adding one more law to the pile will not improve the situation, it will worsen it. Although it will technically add another enforcement angle the police can use to quell a loud, disruptive party, they already have plenty of tools to do so. I predict that “Sky Lantern” calls will be assigned a very low priority, and will hardly ever result in actual enforcement.
The City Council, unfortunately, has only one tool that it can use to react to a problem: it can create an ordinance. This tool has a great deal of power under the right circumstances, but is of limited utility under the wrong circumstances. I believe the proposed ordinance is being brought up under fundamentally bad circumstances, and thus will be not only ineffective but also potentially bad news for a host of other ordinances.
The old saying that “when you only have a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail” comes to mind here. City Council would be wise to carefully consider whether they should break out their hammer in this case. I don’t think they should pass this ordinance. Instead, there should be an extensive public education campaign to help people understand the dangers that Sky Lanterns pose, and hopefully with some time and effort we will be able to reduce their use organically. If we were to devote significant resources to fire prevention education in Sterling Heights, I believe the needs of the Fire Department could be met without enacting new, more restrictive legislation.