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Saturday, October 21, 2017

The level of reported bombings in 2011 and 2012 was triple the number compared to more than four decades ago, when I wrote a three-part series in the afternoon San Jose News on homemade explosive devices. Back then, as a staff writer for the morning San Jose Mercury, I covered California radicals, left and right, and the cops trying to catch them. I even got one bomb-maker in 1972 to invite me home to see a nonworking bomb model fashioned from advice in a book we both owned, anti-war protester William Powell’s The Anarchist Cook Book.

Hobbling law enforcement, and attacking it, has long been an NRA strategy.

After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, federal agents had a tough time tracing the fertilizer used to make the bomb that killed 168 people and injured 680 more because the NRA had fought using identifiers for explosives.

As my then-colleague Fox Butterfield reported in The New York Times three weeks after the crime:

Technological advances in the last three decades might have made it harder to build such a bomb and easier to trace its origin, the experts say, but gun enthusiasts and makers of fertilizer and explosives have repeatedly blocked efforts to put the research to use.

“It is just amazing that in this dangerous time, fanatical, boneheaded people are opposed to controls on explosives,” said then-Representative Charles E. Schumer, a Democrat from Brooklyn, who introduced bills in 1993 and 1994 that would have forced manufacturers to add an identifying marker to explosives so their users could be tracked.

Mr. Schumer was referring primarily to the National Rifle Association and the explosives industry, which helped defeat the bills, citing among their objections safety hazards and reliability. The use of markers, they said, makes explosives more unstable and, when used in gunpowder, makes the charge less reliable.

Reynold Hoover, a former bomb expert with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said his agency had money in the budget in the 1970s to develop a tagging or identification agent, known as a taggant. The 3M Corporation devised the technology by the late ’70s, said Mr. Hoover, now a consultant in Washington: fluorescent particles that could be detected by ultraviolet light. Manufacturers would use a different taggant in each batch.

Although up to 90 percent of taggants might be destroyed in a detonation, enough would remain to reveal their source.

In 1979, while conducting a $5 million pilot project using taggants in some seven million pounds of explosives, the ATF was able to track down and convict James L. McFillin, who had used an explosive, Tovex 220, to make a bomb that killed one man and injured another in Baltimore.

But shortly afterward, Congress ordered the bureau to stop work on ways to trace explosives. At the time, Representative William J. Hughes, the New Jersey Democrat who headed the House subcommittee on crime, said the National Rifle Association and makers of explosives had pressured Congress to block the program.

The NRA opposed using taggants, saying they would contaminate some explosives used by gun hobbyists, like old-fashioned gunpowder called black powder and the newer smokeless powder. It said people who liked to fire antique rifles or who loaded their own ammunition would have to use less accurate gunpowder.

Let’s not forget what Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s CEO, said shortly after that terrorist act in Oklahoma City. LaPierre went on the attack against law enforcement, comparing federal agents to the Nazis and calling them “jack-booted thugs.”

Former president George H.W. Bush then resigned from the NRA in protest, but LaPierre kept his job, which speaks volumes.

As for taggants, the “study” the NRA cites to show that good science found taggants would make gunpowder less reliable and would not work was in fact only a review of the literature.

Anyone who actually reads the 1980 report, “Taggants in Explosives,” will find this revealing line by the Office of Technology Assessment: “Due to severe time constraints, OTA did little original research.”

Technology has advanced since that report, which is so old that it was prepared on a typewriter.

We can get identifiers put in gunpowders because of technological advances, just as reports get prepared these days on computers.  And if “good science” says existing taggants fall short, then Congress can fund research to develop taggants that work without degrading the quality of the explosive charge in bullets.

But as the votes in the Senate killing modest gun regulation and controls on gun trafficking showed this week, what stands firmly in the way of reducing mass murders and bombings is one organization and its backers.

We can change that, once the public understands that the NRA is not so much a defender of Second Amendment rights as a lobby for enabling mass murder.

AP Photo/Elise Amendola

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