So… about those fireworks

Listen 20:05
An assortment of fireworks on a shelf for sale. (Tony Gutierrez/AP Photo, file)

An assortment of fireworks on a shelf for sale. (Tony Gutierrez/AP Photo, file)

If you live in or around Philadelphia, you’ve probably heard unexplained booms well into the night. They started during the protests against police brutality, which has the city chalking them up to fireworks and ATM robberies, while some concerned citizens are looking to conspiracy theories. Max Marin and Michaela Winberg, reporters for WHYY’s Billy Penn, investigated the #PhillyExplosions and some inconveniently-timed changes to Philadelphia’s fire code.

Hear the whole story on The Why

Interview highlights

Max on investigating the Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs) theory:

There are over 2,000 National Guard members stationed in the Philadelphia region at the height of the uprising that’s happening. They’re driving around in these tactical vehicles and people are posting pictures of them and starting to surmise that the booms are coming from a sonic device attached to the National Guard’s vehicles … And they’re saying, that’s it. That’s the LRAD device … An LRAD emits a noise so shrill and loud that it would literally forces you to run away. It’s been used for protest control before in some cities. It’s somewhat controversial, it’s made people’s ears bleed, but it does the opposite of what people are actually describing and recording hearing, which are these very subwoofer level tones that are coming out. 

The theory is nevertheless taking off on Twitter. I’m DM-ing some questionable accounts on Twitter very late at night who are claiming that they have evidence of this happening. And I’m like, I really want the video … These National Guard guys — there’s 1.5 million people in the city — there’s no way you’re driving around at night setting off these giant boom-boom devices and nobody has caught you on videotape yet. I must’ve reached out to dozens of people claiming that they had video evidence of them using these devices. Couldn’t find anything.

I called the National Guard lieutenant in Pennsylvania and he immediately started laughing at the question and said that in his entire career he had never even seen one of these long-range devices. I think at one point he said, “The only time I’ve seen anything like that was in one of the ‘Incredible Hulk’ movies.”

Michaela on why there are so many fireworks in Philly now: 

This is actually the first summer when Philadelphia has had legal fireworks in years on the books. Prior to October 2017, Pennsylvania had this really confusing fireworks law. It made it illegal to sell fireworks here unless like you presented an out-of-state I.D., then you could buy fireworks in Pennsylvania and like prove you were taking them out of the state, which is super confusing … And then in October 2017, Pennsylvania passed this act that legalized firework sales across the state … But it was confusing because that law was in direct conflict with Philadelphia’s fire code, which says that you couldn’t set off fireworks anywhere in the city … So then last summer, 2019, on July 3rd … [Mayor Jim] Kenny signs this updated fire code, which officially allows you to sell and use fireworks in the city. So finally, these two laws are not in conflict with each other. Residents don’t have to be confused anymore about what’s legal … 

Fireworks companies are advertising heavily … And everyone is stir crazy from the pandemic and from quarantine … so there’s this sort of convergence of factors.

Michaela on why people are hearing more fireworks around the country: 

There’s been a universal sort of relaxing of fireworks laws in states all over the country since the year 2000. Fifteen states have relaxed their fireworks laws in some way. And at this point, in 2020, there are only three states left that have a full ban on fireworks; that’s New Jersey, Delaware and Massachusetts. When you’re talking about commercial fireworks sales, they’re up 15% this year, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association.

And there’s this motion toward liberalization of fireworks laws, in part because it’s really lucrative for states and cities to do this. I mean, when Pennsylvania passed its Act 43, which is the law that legalized fireworks in 2017, they added this 12% tax on all consumer fireworks. And that’s in addition to the state’s already 6% sales tax, so it’s an opportunity to raise revenue pretty easily, and that’s just true nationwide.

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