I am as conscious as any, and more conscious than most, of the dangers of treating adults as adults. I have the advantage of obtaining my license to drive at age 44, which enabled me to see more clearly than most people that the highways are full of enemies, assassins and idiots.
Nevertheless, the liberty of all depends almost entirely on the assumption that adults are responsible for their actions, which is why I traveled to Augusta on Friday to testify on behalf of Senator Gooley's bill to relax Maine's restrictions on the purchase and use of fireworks. The burden of my testimony before the judiciary committee was that the existing prohibitions are whimsical, arbitrary and inconsistent. The committee was by turns dazzled, amazed and baffled by my testimony.
My brother-in-law (brevet rank), a master of all things mechanical, ancient and modern, is firmly of the opinion that I am not to be trusted with any tool more dangerous than a screwdriver. I have never challenged his authority to make this judgment. Yet I am entitled to walk into any hardware store, flourish my credit card and walk out with a chainsaw, ready to set sawdust and fragments of my anatomy a-flying.
Now here's my point: The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) tells us that there were 135,000 chainsaw accidents last year. Compare this with about 7,000 accidents from fireworks. Moreover, chainsaw accidents have been increasing over time while fireworks accidents have decreased fairly steadily from 12,000 in 1990, even as fireworks consumption has increased from 67,300,000 pounds in 1990 to 220,800,000 pounds in 2003.
The argument will be made that a large proportion of fireworks accidents afflict children – invoking "the children" being a powerful argument from sentiment for controlling adults. Logically, this makes more sense as an argument against allowing parents the custody of their children. New Hampshire, for example, requires proof that fireworks purchasers are 21.
The CPSC calculates that the rate of fireworks accidents for children under 14 was nine per 100,000 in 2000. Compare that to 35 per 100,000 for accidents from pens and pencils, and 126 per 100,000 for skateboards. Never mind bikes and trikes: 847 per 100,000 – a regular holocaust.
Preparing for my testimony, I walked into the Brickyard Café in West Farmington at 6:15 and asked all those present who had operated a chainsaw under age 21. All males present raised their hands. Inquiring further, I established that one had first operated that tool at age 17, seven at age 14 or 15, one at age 13. Jimmy Gilbert, who operates a garage, guessed he was 6 or 7 when he first ran one.
Continuing my research at the Farmington Rotary Breakfast, I established that 18 members had operated a chainsaw under 21; 10 of those under age 15.
The fire marshals stand firmly behind the prohibition. Their experience teaches them that people cause most fires, so it follows that the more the state restricts people, the fewer fires. True enough: The CPSC calculated that 2,532 fires were caused by fireworks in 1997, 0.3 percent of the total. Assuming current figures are comparable, I don't how it is possible to justify diverting resources from preventing 99.7 percent of fires in order to harass fireworks purchasers.
In all honesty, I admit that I knew a fellow in high school who suffered a painful injury when a bomb blew up in his hand. It should be noted, however, that it was a real bomb, not a commercial pyrotechnic. This would be clear grounds for abolishing high school chemistry.
In sum, either Maine's fireworks restrictions are a case of whimsical officiousness, or the state has fallen far short of the necessary safety measures, and it should go ahead and license chainsaw operators, abolish skateboards and bikes and take steps to keep pens and pencils out of the hands of small children. Maybe they could abolish silverware while they're at it.
Professor John Frary of Farmington is a scholar, patriot, gourmand and curmudgeon and can be reached at email@example.com.