Small Ga. retailers want to sell fireworks, but effort may be a dud

Mom and pop retailers wanting to seasonally sell fireworks out of parking lot tents and stands across Georgia may have seen their efforts fizzle, as state lawmakers look to wrap up the legislative session Thursday without those changes to the state’s new fireworks law.

A pending agreement between the House and the Senate is still expected to be approved before the chambers gavel out for the year at midnight. House Bill 727 would, among other changes, set new limits on how late in the evening Georgians could ignite fireworks during the holidays, set new restrictions where fireworks could be set off and give local authorities more control over regulating fireworks in their communities.

The battle over sales, however, has been a flash point this session at the Capitol, a kind of David vs. Goliath battle between some of the largest fireworks businesses in the country and small retailers who don’t want to or can’t afford to set up shop year-round.

Georgia for the first time last year made it legal to sell, buy and possess many types of fireworks already legal across the nation, such as firecrackers, Roman candles, bottle rockets and mortars. The law, which went into effect July 1, puts a premium on companies that sell out of permanent facilities. Some "temporary" locations are allowed, but they generally have to have a connection with a permanent store.

Supporters of that model say it makes it easier to regulate, can be safer for consumers and will help generate more tax revenue for local communities and the state.

"Companies come in here and pay for brick-and-mortar or they rent facilities that cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we're going to allow tents to come in that pay a lot less?" said Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, who is sponsoring the changes and helped pass last year's law.

“I think we should let the existing bill, which only has a minimum of portable units, pass and see how that works for a couple of years before we increase it or consider increasing it,” Mullis said.

Small retailers, however, say it quashes competition. According to statistics they compiled from the State Fire Marshal’s Office, three of the nation’s largest fireworks retailers controlled 372 of the 401 total sales licenses issued by the state just two months after fireworks became legal here.

“I find it crazy that our state would not allow seasonal sales,” said Paul Richardson, who lives in metro Atlanta and would like to have a fireworks business for the 4th of July season, selling out of a tent. “Could you imagine if haunted house attractions were banned because they’re not open year-round? If it is fair to sell Girl Scout cookies … and Christmas trees seasonally, and it’s done nationally, why can’t fireworks be sold seasonally” in Georgia?

As it stands, the new regulations likely to be approved Thursday are expected to help with late-night noise complaints — something several local communities have dealt with in the past year. The new rules would, for example, set a midnight cut-off for backyard fireworks July 3-4 and Jan. 1, up from the current cut-off of 2 a.m.

The bill would also make it illegal to shoot fireworks when under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

State Rep. Paul Battles, R-Cartersville, the original sponsor of the bill, favored legalizing the temporary sales locations. But late Tuesday, as the House sent the bill back to the Senate for one final vote, he acknowledged it wasn’t likely to happen.

“Even before we realized the Senate was not going to accept that, we discussed it with them and came to the conclusion the thing we wanted most out of this bill, for right now, is local control,” he said.