Some fly, some fizzle

Large legal loophole lets business boom


Customer Judith Hicks of Panama City signs a fireworks release after purchasing fireworks at Ceremonial Fireworks in Micanopy on Tuesday. Behind him, customer Keith Pippins, also of Panama City, pays sales associate Doris Anntrost for fireworks.

DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, July 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 1, 2005 at 12:02 a.m.
John Salbert sells nostalgia. Beneath a white vinyl tent in front of Taco Bell on Newberry Road, Salbert offers smoke bombs, glitter cones and sparklers - the stuff he played with as a kid, the "safe-and-sane" stuff that's specifically allowed under state law.
From a warehouse off Interstate 75 in Micanopy, Mark Montgomery sells bottle rockets, mortars and skyrockets - stuff with names like Fresh Fire, Open Fire, Demolition Derby and The Griz.
"What we sell," said Gwen Davin, who helps Montgomery run the store, "is fun."
State laws dictate who's allowed to buy and sell fireworks, and what kind of fireworks they can buy and sell. But prosecutors, law enforcement officials and vendors say gaping loopholes in those laws make enforcing them almost impossible, and leave lots of opportunities for vendors and customers to flout them.
Finding a loophole Montgomery emerges from his office in the Micanopy store wearing gigantic sunglasses with blue-tinted lenses shaped like stars.
The businessman practically dances through the aisles, which are surrounded with the kind of fireworks that are specifically prohibited in state laws.
Montgomery's customers must sign a waiver saying they will use the fireworks they buy as allowed by state law: for agricultural purposes, as railroad flares or as signals at a sporting event, among other exceptions.
"We stay under the Florida guidelines for consumer fireworks," Davin said. "Everything we sell here is legal."
Asked if she considered whether some customers may sign the form and then use the fireworks illegally, Davin shook her head.
"I don't know that," said said. "If I knew that, I wouldn't sell to them. If we think for one minute someone is filling out a false form, we don't sell."
Montgomery fiddled with his sunglasses and smiled.
"Yes, the form says some silly things," Montgomery said. "You know - that people are going to use them at a sporting event. I just think that if a man can go get killed in Iraq, he should be able to buy fireworks."
Montgomery started selling fireworks at the store last year, after years of selling textiles and NASCAR goods.
He's quick to reference case law that lets him sell fireworks after people sign the waivers.
"The abuses or misuses of that form are obvious," State Attorney William Cervone said. "That case is one of the things that's posed real problems for law enforcement in determining what's legal and what's not."
Alachua County Fire Marshal Mike Kelley said Montgomery may be violating fire codes by storing fireworks in the building.
But law enforcement officials said that when it comes to fireworks sales, Montgomery seems to be in the clear.
"He takes a lot of pride in the fact that he found the loophole," said Detective Mike Powers, who heads the Alachua County Sheriff's Office's fireworks detail. "He's got the case down pat, and he makes you sign your life away when you buy."
Monitoring vendors Officials from both the Alachua County Sheriff's Office and the Gainesville Police Department said they planned to monitor vendors with uniformed and undercover officers this weekend to make sure they're not selling illegal fireworks.
But once people buy fireworks, law enforcement becomes almost impossible, said Sgt. Keith Kameg, a spokesman for Gainesville police.
"Realistically, on fireworks, we are not going to barge into people's homes and get them," Kameg said. "We usually come into contact with people through noise complaints. Unless we actually drive up on it, it's tough - by the time we get there, the fireworks are usually done, and we don't charge you based on what you used to have."
That leaves police and fire agencies pleading for people to only use legal sparklers - or to use extreme caution if they must buy illegal ones.
"It's not only a public nuisance," said Sgt. Steve Maynard, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office. "It's a safety issue. Every year, kids get burned. I'm sure some kids will get burned this year, too."
Other Florida counties have imposed stricter rules for who can buy and sell fireworks, and what kind they may sell.
Cervone said his office has tried many times to work with local officials to find a way to tighten legislation locally.
"Being candid, nothing productive has been accomplished," Cervone said.
How to compete? John Salbert sells fireworks about a week out of every year, setting up a tent in Ocala and another on NW 13th Street in addition to the one on Newberry Road. He works there after he leaves his day job as a supervisor at the Florida Farm Bureau.
Salbert said since he's a seasonal business, a permitting exception at the county level makes it tough for him to use the exception form Montgomery uses.
"It puts us at a marked disadvantage business-wise," Salbert said. "How can a tent that's selling 'safe and sane' compete?"
At their loudest and flashiest, fireworks can be big business.
Sue Hutchinson, a manager at Phantom Fireworks in Macclenny, said the store does 85 percent of its business the week before the Fourth of July, and he said the store brings in more than $1 million a year. The store, located off Interstate 10, sells reloadable shells that fly into the sky, cherry bombs and an assortment of other goods.
If Salbert has a good year, he said he might be able to swing a vacation for his three kids.
So when Salbert sells Sky Spiders, Pharaoh's Treasures and Killer Bees - the kind of sparklers so safe he'd use them with his three kids around - he's hoping other parents will see that his business has its advantages, too.
"The stuff they sell in South Carolina and Alabama - and now Micanopy, too, I guess - I can't compete with that," Salbert said. "I can sell the stuff you remember from when you were a kid. And I think there are a lot of parents who don't want dangerous fireworks for their kids."
Amy Reinink can be reached at 352-374-5088 or reinina@gvillesun.com.

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