The mayhem in Boston the week of April 15 was a reminder of how an American city can be paralyzed by a homemade bomb. The same kinds of improvised explosive devices that menaced U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan can easily be deployed by freelance terrorists or madmen trying to send a message, incite panic or just create a media spectacle.
The Tsarnaev brothers were identified as suspects in the bombing because of surveillance videotape, but the
The idea behind taggants is both benign and ingenious, and it can be credited to a chemistry professor and former 3M employee named Richard Livesay, who had been angered over the 1970 leftist bombing at the
Jim Pasco, a former assistant director of the
That the proposal came from the ATF also didn't help matters, according to William Vizzard, an emeritus professor of criminal justice at Cal State Sacramento and a former ATF special agent. The NRA's distrust of the federal law enforcement agency was so great, he said, that "if we suggested having a picnic, they would have immediately denounced picnics as a communist plot."
The NRA successfully pressured
Explosives manufacturers have no ideological opposition to taggants, but they do want to make sure the science is unassailable, the taggants don't interfere with the use of their products and the cost isn't prohibitive, said Christopher Ronay, the head of the Institute of Makers of Explosives, a lobbying and safety group. "Everyone would like to see a marker that's durable and readable," he said. As for NRA opposition, he said: "Frankly, I don't know why that would bother anyone — tracing a product back to its manufacturer." When we asked the NRA last week if it stood by its decades of opposition to taggants, it declined to make a comment.
There is no doubt that requiring taggants would result in a marginally higher shelf price for gunpowder and dynamite; the ATF estimated the cost at 2 cents per pound of explosives in the mid-1970s, and that ratio has not changed. Although this isn't an apples-to-apples comparison, it's worth noting that economists have said closing down Boston for a day cost about $333 million; a few extra pennies are a bargain by comparison.
The NRA also suggested that taggants would be useless distractions to an investigation — "like finding a needle in a haystack" was the phrase a gun lobbyist used — but there is a case on the books that proves the opposite.
Federal agents were experimenting with taggants in 1979. They inserted them into explosives sold from a West Virginia plant. On the evening of May 10, 1979, a steelworker in Baltimore named Nathan Allen was killed in the parking lot of
After a bombing, police need every clue that a crime scene can yield. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing was quickly solved because of a clue in the wreckage: a serial number on a mangled axle that led the FBI to a Ryder truck dealership and then to the man who placed the bomb. Homicide detectives can trace the origin of a bullet by the unique groove markings of a gun barrel. Taggants would be a similar telltale signature. Just the fact of their presence would serve as a deterrent to kitchen-sink bombers.
Some courageous Republicans defied the NRA in 1996 to support a study on placing taggants in black powder. Rep.
With the Boston bombings fresh in everyone's mind, Congress needs to stand up to NRA foolishness and resurrect this eminently good idea.
Tom Zoellner is an associate professor of English at Chapman University. Sam Kleiner is a student at Yale Law School. This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.