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Forbidden Fireworks: To Get The Good Stuff, Head To South Carolina

Nick de la Canal / WFAE

Fireworks will light the Charlotte skyline tonight in what’s billed as the southeast’s largest fireworks show. There will also be plenty of unofficial fireworks displays on rooftops and in backyards across the region. It’s not legal to buy aerial explosives in North Carolina, so to get the good stuff, North Carolinians are streaming across the border this week.

Shoppers MexieTruesdale and Steven Johnson stand in the checkout line at Phantom Fireworks in Fort Mill, South Carolina. They have a grocery cart and a small flatbed loaded with comets, rockets, and miscellaneous explosives. This is a yearly pilgrimage. They plan to spend roughly $1,000 on fireworks every July.

"Probably more than that!" Truesdale laughs.

It’s only 10:30 a.m. and store manager David Smith says someone’s already dropped $1,500 on explosives today. Of course, that’s nothing compared to the store’s biggest spender this year.

"I’ve had a guy who comes in here," says Smith, "he owns a catering company, puts on a big, big show. It was probably about $7,000 altogether.

Phantom Fireworks will make about 80 percent of its annual sales this week. While Smith doesn’t have an exact breakdown of customer demographics, he acknowledges many of those sales come from North Carolinians circumventing their state’s restrictive fireworks laws. North Carolina bans aerial explosives, or anything that leaves the ground. Compare that to South Carolina, where it’s legal to buy rockets with up to 500 grams of pyrotechnic composition.

Christine Lining is shopping for explosives with her son and daughter. They’re from Matthews, North Carolina. The grocery stores in her area sell sparklers and smaller fireworks, "but not the kind you can get here," she says, "the awesome fireworks."

Those would be rockets and roman candles with names like the "Pyrotechnic Motherlode," or the oversized "Grounds for Divorce" package. And, of course, the piece de resistance the "Komodo 3,000," a 119 shot blur of comets, rockets, and colored flames priced at $250. Warning: shoots flaming balls. Definitely not legal in Lining’s home state.

That leads me to ask if she's planning to not set them off back home.

"Ummm, maybe not. Maybe so, maybe not," she says, "Maybe not."

"Wink wink?" I offer.

"Wink wink," she laughs.

The American Pyrotechnics Association estimates more than $675 million will be spent on consumer fireworks this year, up from about $540 million a decade ago. Julie Heckman, the group’s executive director, says it would be difficult to estimate exactly how much potential tax revenue North Carolina loses to restrictive laws. But she points to Rhode Island, which loosened its restrictions in 2010 and made over $2.5 million in the first year.

Anyway, it doesn’t seem like North Carolina plans to loosen restrictions in the near future, so you’ll have to keep traveling across the border to get the "Pyrotechnic Motherlode," and, of course, not set it off in North Carolina. Wink wink.