Inside The Black Market of Fireworks

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On a summer night, this is probably a familiar sound. But according to the American Pyrotechnics Association, most states have restrictions on this type of firework. So how come there are still so many things that go bang in the night?

California bans anything that flies into the air and explodes. For residents who want to celebrate the independence of our nation by blowing things up… you could head over the mountains to more firework-friendly Nevada; or you could head into the virtual black market on your computer.

On Craigslist you’ll find listings like: “air shows Disneyland style Cheap and  “I HAVE FIREWORKS FOR SALE WHENEVER YOU NEED THEM.” So I thought I’d call one of them up.

You can find bottle rockets, roman candles, mortars just a click and a call away. What’s harder to get is an interview.  Which makes sense, since having a large quantity of illegal fireworks is a felony in California, punishable by a year in jail and and up to $50,000 in fines. But one firework dealer in Stockton is willing to take the risk.

“It’s not something I prefer to do, you know there’s always that spice of danger that you have to watch out for,” he says.

In a well-lit parking lot at night, the young, friendly man lays out some of his merchandise on the hood of a car. What keeps fireworks coming into California are people like him and his business partner.

“I have a buddy of mine who goes down to Nevada and brings back a U-haul truck that’s full and then basically I just help him distribute it,” he explains,

Their truck carries about $2500 worth of product and he figures they will double their money on resale. This vendor is relatively small time. In other parts of the state, police recently seized stockpiles of fireworks worth more than half a million dollars .

Steve Weber teaches at UC Berkeley’s School of Information and co-wrote a book on the Black Market Economy of the 21st Century.

He says, “If it is that profitable enough, then there are big criminal enterprises working in this area- quite professionalized.  The mistake is to think of this as fly by night stuff- these are really serious people and they are as entrepreneurial, innovative and venturous as anyone you’d meet in Silicon Valley.”

Actually, just south of  Silicon Valley is a hotbed of illegal firework trafficking.  The police department in San Jose says the crime ranks low on its list of priorities.  But for chair of the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, Keith Gilless says it’s a major concern.

“California is the most flammable place on earth by most people’s reckoning, we can have 400-500 fires a year whose origin is fireworks.”

Mostly illegal fireworks. All those fires can cost millions in damage, and millions more to put them out. Something, Gilless says to consider before lighting up this Fourth of July.


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