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Get Ready for the 4th of July: Flag and Fireworks Laws

No law requires Americans to gleefully wave flags and light up the sky with fireworks every Fourth of July. But try telling that to Americans.

As the nation rocks the red white and blue—and ignites the purple, green, orange and silver—honor our 237th birthday with a salute to the rules covering Old Glory and the fireworks that fly with it.

Unfurling Federal Flag Law

While every school kid knows how to wave a flag, the US Flag Code stitches together all the star-spangled etiquette for the Stars and Stripes. And the Code is a bit persnickety:

  • The flag may fly every day, not just holidays. But after sundown, only properly illuminated flags fly.
  • It’s OK to wash and dry a flag, but don’t leave it out in the rain unless it’s an all-weather flag.
  • A flag should not touch anything under it.
  • Don’t use a flag as clothing, a costume, athletic uniform, bedding, drapery or in advertising. Never dance on a flag to promote a music video.
  • Draping the flag over a vehicle, train or boat are no-no’s
  • It is okay to paint the red-white-and-blue on your Harley Davidson (such as Evel Knievel’s). 
  • Flag images are also fine on yo-yo’s, pins, posters, jewelry, quilts, stamps, an Ivory soap ad and pretty much anything else. These decorations are flag art, and not actual flags.
  • It’s also ok to fly a flag in space, both under the Flag Code and international treaty law
  • Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 crew boldly planted Old Glory on the Moon to represent national pride, not to claim lunar territory.
  • If you can’t figure out how to fold your flag into that neat triangle shape, don’t worry. There’s no such requirement under the Code.
  • And don’t toss out your torn, faded and frayed Old Glory with the day’s trash. The Code advises you to respectfully burn unserviceable flags.

Speaking of burning, the Supreme Court has affirmed that burning flags in protest is protected speech under the First Amendment—to the chagrin of some patriots. In fact, the Flag Code serves as a set of guidelines for proper flag etiquette and carries no penalties for violations. The Code does not cover state flags. And yes, states also enact flag laws.

Fireworks: State-ing What’s Legal

Federal laws set forth two main categories of fireworks: consumer and display.

The big-time fireworks—the ones we ooh-and-aah over at ball games and our hometown Independence Day celebrations—are regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives. You need an ATFE license or permit to work with these fireworks; don’t get caught without one.

Meanwhile, it’s the Consumer Product Safety Commission that watches over the far milder explosives you buy at stores and roadside stands.

CPSC safety rules include very specific requirements such as: firework fuses must burn for at least three seconds but no more than nine. Small explosives may contain warning labels like: “SHOOTS FLAMING BALLS” or “EMITS SHOWERS OR SPARKS.” Envy the lucky CPSC workers who get to do all that product testing.

Lucky for most of us, you don’t need a permit or license to buy legal consumer fireworks—unless you live in New York, New Jersey, Delaware or Massachusetts. All other states permit some or all consumer fireworks.

  • Connecticut, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Vermont allow sparklers and not much else.
  • Wyoming permits CPSC approved fireworks. Montana bans skyrockets, roman candles and bottle rockets.
  • You can only buy fireworks in Ohio after you sign a form promising to take them out of state. But you better not be leaving by air: the FAA prohibits fireworks in carry-on and checked luggage.
  • M-80s, M-100s, M-1000s, ashcans, cherry bombs and quarter-sticks—aka small bombs—are illegal explosive devices, not fireworks.

Take note: some towns, cities and counties are even more restrictive than their states. And, fireworks laws change fast. So check your local laws and explode things cautiously. You don’t want to become the star of the latest next fireworks #fail mash-up.

And if you happen to be organizing an event that involves fireworks, you may want to have attendees sign a release of liability.

With legal rockets, cheers, and a star spangled salute to the birth of our great nation, from Rocket Lawyer: happy birthday, America!

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