Johnston writes: "But for the NRA-backed policy of not putting identifiers known as taggants in gunpowder, law enforcement could have quickly identified the explosives used to make the bombs, tracking them from manufacture to retail sale. That could well have saved the life of Sean Collier, the 26-year-old MIT police officer who was gunned down Thursday night by the fleeing bomb suspects."
If gunpowder was traceable, would the police have been able to find the bombers sooner? (photo: Boston Globe)
How the NRA Impeded the Boston Bomber Investigation
20 April 13
he intense hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers illustrates another way that the National Rifle Association helps mass murderers - by delaying how quickly they can be identified.
The inability to quickly track the gunpowders in the Boston bombs is due to government policy designed and promoted by the NRA, which has found a way to transform every massacre associated with weapons into an opportunity for the munitions companies that sustain it to sell more guns, gunpowder and bullets.
The price for such delays was put on terrible display Friday morning when the two brothers, who had been caught on video placing the bombs, killed one police officer, wounded another and carjacked a motorist, creating conditions so unsafe that the 7th largest population center in America spent Friday on lockdown.
But for the NRA-backed policy of not putting identifiers known as taggants in gunpowder, law enforcement could have quickly identified the explosives used to make the bombs, tracking them from manufacture to retail sale. That could well have saved the life of Sean Collier, the 26-year-old MIT police officer who was gunned down Thursday night by the fleeing bomb suspects.
Had the suspects in the Boston bombings killed by slipping poison into bottled water or canned food at a factory, or lacing spinach in a field with a deadly chemical, it would have taken only minutes to a few hours to identify exactly where that food was manufactured and how it moved through the food chain. That would have quickly narrowed the search for suspects.
With many food products you can use a smartphone app to scan the product's barcode and learn where, when and by what company the product was made. Cans and bottles also come with codes printed or stamped on them to help stop foodborne illness by tracking products to their source.
"With almost any food these days you can quickly track it from the source to the store where it was sold," according to Bill Marler, a Seattle litigator who specializes in food safety cases and sponsors the website Food Safety News.
Had the Boston bombers used a plastic explosive, it would have included identifiers that would have allowed a quick trace. Those taggants exist because the NRA does not oppose them.
Why is that? Why this breach in the NRA's Maginot Line of defense against reasonable regulation of guns and ammunition?
The answer appears to lie in who makes plastic explosives like Semtx, which was used to bring down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. The world's main supplier was not a company that finances the NRA, but Libya under Moammar Khadafy.
That this one breach in NRA policy traces directly to the economic interests of the American munitions industry provides powerful evidence of what motivates the NRA - profits.
That the gun makers have managed to turn each massacre into a spike in sales of both expensive rapid-fire weapons and ammunition adds to the evidence that the NRA should be viewed as the mass-murder lobby.
The major source of plastic explosives may also be significant in understanding the NRA's willingness to go along with taggants for plastic explosives, which are much more powerful than gunpowder.
But gunpowder, like guns, are extremely difficult to trace because for more than three decades the NRA has fought to make sure it's difficult to almost impossible to do.
That difficulty results not from the technical issues at hand, though the NRA tries to make people think that's the case by mischaracterizing a 1980 government report.
In the case of guns, the NRA claims anything remotely resembling a gun registry or a national database tracking guns from manufacturer to retail sale would help the government disarm the citizenry. In this the NRA fuels the fantasy that in the event the American government turned on the people, bands of armed patriots could defeat the military with its trained soldiers, aircraft, drones, advanced weaponry and communications.
Iraqi households almost all had guns, too, but that did not protect them from their country's military or the invading American-led ground forces a decade ago.
Bombs have long been used in America for personal, criminal and political purposes. The frequency of bombings may surprise many people given the intense focus on the Boston bombs.
Roughly 5,000 bombings and attempted bombings are reported in the U.S. each year, according to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms reports.
The ATF data, like that the FBI gathers, takes a broad measure, counting bombs made from matchsticks as well as dynamite.
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.
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