Richard, thanks for your thoughts.
I scanned your blog very briefly. If you’re concerned about the accuracy of the statistics I’ve cited (and you’re interested in learning more about the harms of fireworks in dense, urban communities like ours), I encourage you to consult a page on the website for the Center for Disease Control, which recites the death statistic for 2005. The 2004 data comes from the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, as related on the San Jose Fire Department’s “weblog” last year.
As for your concerns about “individual liberty,” as a member of the ACLU, I suspect you’re only doing half the thinking. Our neighbors also have a right to be free from nuisance and noise at 2 a.m. that prevents them from getting a decent sleep. I’ve been responding to emails all week from residents who are tired of being awoken on June 30th, July 2nd, July 5th, etc. because of fireworks explosions at all hours throughout the week. An example of such an email is below, along with a copy of the July 4th SJ Fire Dept log — as you can see, five of the reported fires (and there were several more with later reports) appear to be caused by fireworks.
I enjoyed fireworks as a kid as much as anyone else, but we live in a
dense urban center now, and we have to be realistic about the balance
of risk, nuisance, and benefit to everyone in the community.
First, I appreciate that he responded.
Second: Sam’s press release quoted no source, while I was able to cite a quote from the website of the National Fire Protection Association and Alliance to Stop Consumer Fireworks that directly contradicts the assertion that there were eight (fireworks related) deaths in 2004. However, based on the CDC link he provided, I found actual reports for 2004, 2005, and 2006 that claim eight, four, and eleven deaths, respectively (PDF links: 2004, 2005, 2006).
For some perspective, here you can see a list of causes of death for all sorts of activities. For instance, compared with the 11 deaths in 2006 in the entire U.S., there were 5,870 deaths from crossing the street, 740 from riding a bike, 18,081 combined car, van and pick-up truck accidents, and even buses (city buses, maybe?) caused 20 deaths and railway (city light rails, maybe?) caused 30. The point is that it’s a long list, and it’s hard to find causes less important than fireworks. Hell, you’re 5 times more likely to be struck and killed by lightning (50 deaths). Of course, I could go on and on and on and it would just look more and more and more ridiculous.
From a safety standpoint, fireworks are simply a very low risk to virtually everyone. And, those PDF reports also confirmed my statistics from the American Pyrotechnics Association that claim that while fireworks usage has increased 871% since 1981, injuries have decreased by 90% as a function of injuries per pound. Prohibition, fines, and jail time — as Sam’s press release showcased — can take zero credit for that, since usage increased dramatically.
In summary on that point, appeals to safety concerns, and death statistics devoid of context (relative danger, geographic area covered, etc.) was, I believe, misleading as presented in the press release and was designed to “scare straight.” The safety issue being thus discredited, and far from an undisputed desirable goal anyhow, this aspect of the dispute doesn’t even rise to the level of trying to justify bad means (being misleading) to achieve good ends (more safety: 90% increase without any contribution by prohibitive measures), which isn’t a great position to be in anyway.
So the issue that seems to remain is that of “individual liberty,” as expressed by Sam in scare quotes. Now, if I were to suggest that Sam was in need of schooling in this area — as he seems to suggest in my case — I might offer a reading list featuring such names as Bastiat, Paine, Jefferson, Locke, Thoreau, Garrison, Boétie, Mill, Spooner, and Rand (to name just a few). I might stress making the crucial distinction between negative liberty and positive liberty as first voiced by Isaiah Berlin as early as 1958. Then I might — importantly — suggest a very thorough review of the distinction between negative rights and “positive rights” in classical liberal thought.
In Sam’s case, he sends me to the ACLU. And while I’ll agree that the ACLU does much good work, it’s very unreliable, is completely unprincipled from a moral standpoint, and seems inconsistent when applying even its own stated (legal / constitutional) principles to issues that happen to be opposed by the left or would be of some political benefit to the right (I personally side with reason, thus carry water for neither the right nor the left). They’re a complete mishmash of confusion when it comes to applying principles of liberty in the classical liberal sense. You can go to their website and pretty much nod as you peruse their positions on criminal justice, the death penalty, drug policy, police practices, prisoner’s rights, religion and belief; and then watch them completely undercut any ability to consistently stand on moral principle, when free speech qua “right” means that someone is obliged to supply a podium or printing press. Disability “rights” means those who fall under the definition are entitled to certain goods and services at the forced expense of those who don’t. The “right” to privacy doesn’t only mean that you have the negative liberty to secure your privacy within your abilities to do so, but argues that you are to be guaranteed privacy at the expense of others.
I could go on for a long, long time. Assuming, hopefully, that Sam at least accepts that I just may have thought through the whole thing, and not only half (though we may still disagree), let me turn attention to the specific matter.
Sam states that:
Our neighbors also have a right to be free from nuisance and noise at 2 a.m. that prevents them from getting a decent sleep.
Really? How about 1 a.m? 11 p.m? How about 10 p.m? How about screeching tires, or cars that backfire? How about excessive fire and police sirens? How about annoying police helicopters that hover and circle at all hours of the day night and early mornings, even on the weekends? How about beep, beep, beep, whaaaaaaaaaaaaah…clunk, clunk; crash, bang, boom from trucks picking up commercial trash dumpsters at 5 a.m? How about leaf blowers at 7 a.m., sometimes earlier? The list is endless. Why? Because we live in a dense urban area, as Sam acknowledges, and all of these things are simply baked in the cake. What’s more, these things are ongoing daily and weekly events. Fireworks is two or three days per year.
I’m not defending being an asshole, but a guy or company that takes up a dumpster at 5 a.m. 52 times in a year and the guy that blows leaves at the crack of dawn — also 52 times — is far more of an asshole to me than is a relatively small collection of them that go overboard once or twice per year in celebration.
But all that’s not really the issue. I have a right to seek every bit as much piece and quiet as I can beg, borrow, purchase, trade, contract for — or via any number of other means that get me what I want cooperatively. Nobody owes me a good night’s sleep, or anything else for that matter. I have any number of options to limit my exposure or aggravation with noise, including turning up the A/C and closing the windows, going to the countryside on those days, or whatever. But mostly, the fact that I purchased a loft in a dense urban environment means that I ought to be mature and reasonable enough to understand that I purchased not only a loft, but an urban environment that comes with many things: mostly positive in my view, but with unavoidable negatives. I suppose it’s just too much of a temptation for most people. There’s Sam: threatening to fine or throw people in jail that annoy them or were being an asshole. Who can refuse?
I’m reminded of a trip to New Orleans for a conference several months prior to Katrina. I don’t recall the name of the hotel, but it was right on Bourbon St., and my room was right above party central. Was I annoyed as could be? Youbetcha. Until about 4 a.m., all three or four nights. Did I complain? Nope. I got exactly what I paid for. I just didn’t fully understand everything I had paid for. But I’ll know next time.
Too many today wish for guarantees that nobody can provide, and they wish to be absolved and relieved of the consequences of their own decisions and choices. They want urban, but they want it à la carte; while it’s really only served up as a complete dish. So too, apparently, there are politicians skilled in the art of taking advantage of the situation to appear helpful, but at the expense of threatening others with fines and jail time for what are largely peaceful activities. And in the end, as the first sentence of the complaint letter Sam forwarded indicates, everyone loses: “Last night was as bad as I’ve ever known it to be.” Too bad she was led to such disappointment by those who should rather be instructing her that her problems are ultimately for her to solve however she reasonably can.