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Posted: 6:05 p.m. Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The argument for real — and legal — fireworks in Georgia 

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State Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga
State Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, outside his favorite fireworks establishment in Cleveland, Tenn. AJC/Jim Galloway

By Jim Galloway

CHICKAMAUGA, Ga. -- The Mullis family fireworks show, which would normally delight the neighbors this evening, has been postponed.

Not because of rain, but because of an excess of candor. Look for the explosions to resume in 2015.

Several months ago, pater familias Jeff Mullis, a Republican state senator, introduced a measure to legalize fireworks in Georgia. Not the glorified sparklers you now find at Target and Wal-Mart, but the kind that shoot high and then go “boom.”

The kind that are currently illegal in Georgia.

Mullis, a 13-year veteran of the state Capitol, launched his bill in March with a confession of criminality. “I have broken the law and have purchased fireworks in Cleveland, Tenn., and have displayed them in the field beside my house with some law enforcement people assisting me,” he said. “And it happens often, everywhere in Georgia.”

Honesty doesn’t often trump discretion in the Capitol. That time, it did, and today Mullis will pay the price. Out of respect for legal niceties, he will not drive across the state line, plunk down $400 to $500 for an assortment of made-in-China explosives, and head back home to delight his two youngest kids with the contraband.

No, tonight he will leave the illegality to a neighbor. “I may contribute to his fireworks effort — maybe give him $100 or so,” Mullis said.

Now, some lawyer might consider that to be aiding and abetting. But I’m nearly certain that Mullis meant that his cash would to go strictly toward the purchase of soft drinks and cookies. And maybe a watermelon or two.

We were in the pickup truck at the time, headed for Tennessee and the parking lots of the dozens of fireworks stores that line I-75 and I-24. This was a hunt for Georgia license plates — proof that our state’s ban on fireworks is flouted by hundreds of Georgians every day.

As we drove, the state lawmaker explained why he was pushing the measure — and why it would pass next year.

Yes, fireworks are inherently dangerous, the former fire chief of Chickamauga said. But they’re even more hazardous when pushed underground.

“Why don’t we just regulate it, put some safety guidelines in there for distributing it, selling it, purchasing it and who shoots it? It’s safer than having an illegal product that’s not regulated,” he said.

According to Senate Bill 229, possession of fireworks by anyone under 18 would be illegal. Stores would be required to be permanent — no tents — and equipped with sprinklers.

Have no doubt — this is the future. Primarily because Mullis is chairman of the Senate Rules Committee and one of a half-dozen or so lawmakers who control the flow of legislation in the Capitol. Eight years ago, Georgia cracked the door and legalized low-grade fireworks.

Why? Because the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, Mullis’ predecessor, demanded it.

Health care providers and fire marshals aren’t particularly comfortable with the legislation, but their hostility may be dampened by a provision — if approved by Georgia voters — that would dedicate most of the tax revenue generated from fireworks sales to the state’s trauma system and firefighting causes.

No, the strongest opposition will come from fireworks peddlers set up near Georgia’s borders — like the ones we were visiting. One of our first stops was at Mullis’ favorite establishment. Not because of its prices, but because the store offers video of the explosions being purchased. A man likes to see what he’s buying.

Two more stores were within a stone’s throw. One was a tent operation promising that proceeds would be used to help orphans and build churches in poor countries. (Light a fuse, save a child.)

But only three in every 10 cars in the parking lots were from Georgia. Not enough to prove Mullis’ point. “We’re too far north,” Mullis complained.

So we headed back south to East Ridge, Tenn. On our third stop, we found a bright green building that not only sold fireworks, but also offered los fuegos artificiales.

“Jackpot,” Mullis said. Six of the seven cars in the lot — on a Monday afternoon, three days before the Fourth — were from the Peach State.

Behind the observation that “everybody does it” is a very real concern. Laws that are unwanted and unenforced — or worse, only occasionally enforced — can be more dangerous than any cherry bomb.

A day after our license plate hunt, I called Michael Haney, Chickamauga’s police chief and Mullis’ neighbor. Who has been near some of the state lawmaker’s past fireworks shows.

“I’ve witnessed some of them — let’s put it that way," Haney said. "I won’t say that I’ve broke any laws.”

When it comes to fireworks, there is an unspoken understanding in Chickamauga that is likely repeated elsewhere in Georgia. “Most people have respect, and they don’t fire them off in front of us,” Haney said. “We generally don’t see them — except up in the air. But we don’t do this big manhunt and hunt them down.”

About 10 p.m. or so, his officers will pass the word to end the explosions. On a second visit, they might confiscate the fireworks. “But generally, we don’t fool with anybody on [the Fourth] unless we get a complaint. It seems to work out fine for us,” the police chief said.

“I think the law in its time served its purpose,” Haney said, sounding like he would like to edge a bit closer to Mullis’ Fourth of July events. “I should be able to buy them in my state and shoot them in my state. If we can regulate guns, we can regulate fireworks.”

Jim Galloway

About Jim Galloway

Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.

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