The Gun Lobby Takes a Traceable Hit : Forensics: Study of taggants in explosives is approved over staunch objections from the NRA.

John Shepard Wiley Jr. is a professor at UCLA School of Law and a former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles

After 3 1/2 months, lack of evidence still frutrates the investigation into the bombing during the Olympic Games in Atlanta. The only good news concerns the effort to catch future bombers.

The new federal budget bill funds a study of whether taggants can trace explosives in bombs like the one that blasted the revelers in Centennial Olympics Park. Law enforcement has favored this sensible policy for years, but the powerful National Rifle Assn. has blocked the measure.

Taggants are ingenious, colorful, tiny and indestructible. Using color codes, these microscopic chips mark batches of explosives the way that bar codes mark supermarket products. Crime scene investigators retrieve the taggants at a blast site, using ultraviolet light and magnetic collectors, then can trace the location and date of the explosive’s origin.

It’s not surprising that the Atlanta bombing has been hard to solve. Bombers often elude capture because the nature of their crime makes useful eyewitnesses rare and detonation destroys much of the physical evidence. Taggants create a new and durable kind of proof that, like serial numbers on guns and cars, provides valuable help in convicting criminals.


Taggants are not new. In the late 1970s, a federal pilot project added taggants to explosives. When a 1979 car bomb killed Nathan Allen of Baltimore, taggant evidence from the bomb led investigators to Allen’s murderer. A federal appeals court upheld the use of taggant evidence and ruled that “the use of taggants in explosives rests upon well-established scientific principles.” The Swiss government has required taggants in commercial explosives for years and has used this evidence to solve dozens of cases.

The Atlanta pipe bomb was a typical example of a deadly problem. Its gunpowder makeup was common; 86% of all pipe bomb explosions in 1994 involved gunpowder. Pipe bombings have been alarmingly destructive over the years. From 1990 through 1994, 4,095 U.S. pipe bomb attacks killed 44 people and injured 384.

Law enforcement officials have tried for nearly two decades to persuade Congress to pass a taggant law. President Clinton has consistently supported the idea. The NRA and its allies, however, have resisted putting taggants in gunpowder and has resisted even allowing the federal government to study their use. The NRA claims that taggants will raise the cost and lower the quality of gunpowder, and that federal law enforcement agencies are too untrustworthy to conduct an impartial taggant study.

Like the tobacco lobby, the NRA has been well-organized and well-financed--a fearsome political opponent. For years, conventional political wisdom was to do the NRA’s bidding or just steer clear. The merits of the taggant proposal, however, should have made this sound law enforcement idea completely nonpartisan; there has been no valid objection simply to studying whether taggants are safe and effective in gunpowder. With the aid of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)--a longtime proponent of taggants--Clinton defeated objections about who would conduct the study by designating the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.


After years of inaction, we are finally moving forward with a technology to make it easier to identify the fanatical bombers who menace our world. During those years, the bombings continued: on Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, in the Unabomber’s deadly boxes, at Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center and during the Atlanta Olympics. Clinton and Feinstein deserve praise for bucking the powerful NRA and pursuing taggants as an added tool for convicting the guilty--and exonerating the innocent. It is past time to take aim at the blind violence of untraceable explosives.