That's a commonsense idea that ought to have been law long ago, but it doesn't go far enough. Explosive powders ought to be "tagged" so they can be traced if they are used in a bomb. But the National Rifle Association has been active for more than 30 years in keeping that from happening.
A week go, Lauternberg stated in a press release:
"It is outrageous that anyone, even a known terrorist, can walk into a store in America and buy explosives without any questions asked,” said Senator Lautenberg. “If we are serious about public safety, we must put these common-sense safeguards in place. While the police have not revealed what specific explosive materials were used in Boston, what we do know is that explosive powder is too easy to anonymously purchase across the country.”In addition to background checks, the bill would authorize the U.S. Attorney General's office to stop sales of explosives when an applicant turns out to be a "known or suspected terrorist" and outlaw the making of homemade explosives without a permit. Lautenberg had first recommended barring known or suspected terrorists from legally acquiring explosives in a report he released in 2010, Firearms, Explosive and Terrorists: A Looming Threat—A Major U.S. Vulnerability.
Although the official report has yet to be released, it's widely believed that the Tsarnaev brothers, the suspects in the Boston Marathon attacks, used black powder or another explosive powder to fuel several crude but lethal pressure-cooker bombs and some homemade "hand grenades." Some of which they reportedly flung at police during a shoot-out early Friday morning.
Authorities say that Tamerlan Tsarnaev bought fireworks that included slightly more than three pounds of black powder. Whether it was used to power the bombs or perhaps just acquired for testing purposes is unknown. Three pounds would not have been enough for all the bombs the brothers are said to have exploded or that were found that had not gone off. But one or both of them could have bought additional fireworks elsewhere or acquired black powder in bulk from other sources.
Besides its use in fireworks, black powder is commonly used by hobbyists who shoot antique firearms or, more usually, modern replicas of antiques. Smokeless powder and "black powder substitute" can also be purchased in bulk by reloaders, target shooters and hunters who want to customize their cartridges or save money they would have to pay for manufactured ammunition.
Please continue reading below the fold about controlling explosive powders.
Currently, federal law limits possession of black powder to 50 pounds. But if you're in New York or Maryland or California, you're limited to five pounds. You can buy it over the counter at gun stores that carry the product or by mail order from places like this. There are no federal limits on possession of amounts of "black powder substitute" or smokeless powders an individual can own. Some states, however, California among them, set limits on these as well.
How likely is it that such a law could pass? Greg Sargent reached out Wednesday to four Republican senators who filibustered last week against background checks on gun purchases. The offices of three of them said they are evaluating the Lauternberg proposal.
What's missing, however, is some means of tracing explosive powders used in bombs. Plastic explosives already contain "taggants," tiny bits of material with unique chemical signatures that can help identify the maker of an explosive and who it was sold to. But as has been pointed out by Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC and others, the National Rifle Association has been diligent about blocking not only the use of taggants but even research into their use.
Taggants in high explosives were used to track a bomber in 1979. But after the Office of Technology Assessment reported on taggants in 1980, Congress, under pressure from the NRA, ordered Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to stop looking for ways to trace gunpowder. Fifteen years later, after the Oklahoma City bombings, President Clinton proposed mixing taggants into explosives, including fertilizers like the one Tim McVeigh loaded into his rental truck and laced with diesel fuel to murder 168 people.
The NRA again worked to block the move, saying that taggants would make gunpowder unstable and unsafe. In 1998, the National Research Council concluded that despite "putting additives into explosives to make them easier to detect or to help trace their origins after a bombing, concerns about cost, safety and effectiveness must be addressed before additives can be widely used."
That was 15 years ago. Hard to believe that taggant technology, like everything else, hasn't advanced far enough to meet all the objections.
But, assuming it isn't, something Sen. Lautenberg should add to his proposal is one of the options from the 1980 OTA report, encouraging the ATF:
to continue taggant development, with a view to consideration of legislation when development and testing are complete.The first step on that path would be to invite taggant experts in for a chat at a Senate hearing where they can explain how far the technology has progressed and what it would take to add these identifiers to explosive powders. It's hard, no, impossible to believe the engineers can't make this work technically. The question is whether Congress has the courage to make it happen politically.