The wheels of government seem to be rolling inexorably towards a ban on backyard fireworks. This week, the Prime Minister said the end of private sales appeared to be coming closer. Only fear of being accused of running a "nanny state" was preventing him acting.

A couple of days later, a parliamentary select committee underlined the pressure for change when it agreed to pursue the issue. A 29,000-signature petition supporting public firework displays spurred it into action. It seems almost as though the threat of fireworks to public safety and animal welfare has become so great that no course other than a ban is tenable.

But that is not so. Those eager for a change should consider how far matters have improved over the past few years. They need also to think of the pleasure parents with young children derive from fireworks at this time of the year. The situation has improved markedly since the previous Government introduced changes six years ago. These raised the minimum age of purchase from 14 to 18, restricted sales to four days up to and including November 5, and put a cap on the size of fireworks.

These restrictions have led to significant drops in the number of hospital admissions, ACC claims related to fireworks injuries, and the number of Fire Service callouts. Instances of mindless behaviour have continued -- in Manurewa this week, for example, a house fire was caused by fireworks used in a bedroom, and in Otara a garage was destroyed by a teenager shooting fireworks at it. But such incidents should not divert attention from the overall trend. The 2008 changes, allied perhaps to more restraint by firework users as they sense the possibility of a ban, have, by and large, had the desired effect.

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If there is one thing that irks many people, especially those with pets, it is that disruptive explosions occur sporadically for a long time after Guy Fawkes Day. A compromise that might satisfy them would be to restrict fireworks to that day and a few immediately afterwards. But ensuring such a restriction was observed would be difficult. The police have more important things to do and would surely accord this a low priority.

The Prime Minister says he has detected a gradual groundswell towards a ban on private sales. For once, his radar may be askew. A Herald-DigiPoll survey early this year found that 60 per cent of respondents were content with the current rules. That was a substantially higher figure than in similar polls over the preceding few years. As well, the 29,000-signature petition presented to Parliament seems rather less symptomatic of a large groundswell when it is considered that it took a year to collect.

The vast majority of people use fireworks responsibly. The mishaps are a tiny proportion of the fireworks let off at this time of the year. That fact does not attract the same attention as the idiocy of a small minority. Equally, people with young families get pleasure from fireworks that cannot be measured. What can be measured is the downside of fireworks, as indicated by Fire Service callouts, ACC claims and the like. Yet even these are pointing in the right direction.

It may well be that John Key is right and that, in a safety-conscious world, there will come a time when the public sale of fireworks is no longer permitted. But the parliamentary select committee should acknowledge the situation as it is, not as it is seen by intolerant people. If it does so, backyard fireworks should be around for a fair bit longer.

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