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Give ‘bomb control’ a chance

Posted: April 30, 2013 11:12 a.m.
Updated: May 1, 2013 5:00 a.m.

He thought his wife was in love with another man, police say, so James L. McFillin of Baltimore decided to blow the other man up.

It was 1979 in Baltimore. McFillin wired two sticks of an explosive called Tovex 220 into the electrical system of a truck belonging to Nathan A. Allen Sr., killing Allen and injuring another man, prosecutors said.

What McFillin did not know was that his Tovex was “tagged,” as the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) would say. His two sticks were part of about 7 million pounds of explosives that manufacturers had laced with microscopic, color-coded plastic particles called “taggants” as part of a $5 million experiment to test the ability of taggants to identify explosives.

To McFillin’s dismay, the taggants worked. Federal agents traced his explosives back to him and he was convicted in 1980.

In that year, Switzerland became the first and, so far, only country to require taggants in all explosives manufactured there or imported.

But taggants didn’t get far in this country until the late 1990s when President Clinton signed a bill to put “a detection agent,” the legal term for what taggants do, in plastic explosives, but not gunpowder. Gunpowder was exempted under pressure from explosives manufactures and a larger and even more influential ally -- guess who -- the National Rifle Association.

Among their arguments: taggants would add expense. They might make explosives less stable and thus less safe.

But most controversially, there is the classic NRA “slippery slope” worry: a program that requires keeping records on who buys explosives could ease the way to national gun registration. The gun lobby views gun registration as tantamount to confiscation, despite the many Supreme Court decisions that have upheld the constitutional right to bear arms.

After a 1980 study by the Office of Technology Assessment suggested several options, including further government testing and development, Congress chose the option the NRA preferred: they ordered the ATF to stop looking for ways to trace gunpowder.

This anti-science approach has become something to expect from the NRA. Gun violence research ground to a halt at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1996 after the NRA successfully lobbied Congress to ban research that “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” After the Sandy Hook school massacre, President Barack Obama lifted the ban by executive order, but funding remains in question.

Now, after the Boston Marathon bombing, Capitol Hill is talking about taggants again. Putting it in writing is another matter. It would make a nice addition, in my view, to a bill that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid introduced a week after the Boston bombing -- on behalf of ailing Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat and long-time gun control champion. The Explosive Materials Background Check Act would require just that: background checks for anyone purchasing explosive powders.

Can explosives control fare better than gun control? After the recent Senate defeat, despite its widespread popularity in polls, of a bill to require background checks for firearms, we have seen how democracy doesn’t always work as it should in this Congress.

In a telephone chat, I asked William Kerns, president of Microtrace, the Minneapolis-based company that makes taggants, how he feels about the NRA’s concerns. He drew a distinct line of difference between firearms and explosives. “I’m a member of the NRA,” he said, noting that he was a retired captain in the Minneapolis Police Reserve, “and I don’t want to have to register my gun.”

However, when I asked him about concerns over the safety and stability of explosives to which taggants were added, he said, “They’ve been requiring it in Switzerland for about 30 years and I haven’t heard any complaints.”

More research needs to be done in this country, a 1998 National Research Council study found. Concerns “about cost, safety and effectiveness must be addressed before additives can be widely used,” the study concluded.

That’s fair, but that was 15 years ago. Technology has advanced quite a bit since then, yet no further government research or even serious talk about taggants and their “cost, safety and effectiveness” has occurred. Lost time is lost opportunities.

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