The NRA: Bombs Away!

Powerful lobby's resistance hangs up law enforcement's ability to track killer explosives

Published August 2, 1996 4:53PM (EDT)

despite the TWA explosion and last weekend's fatal bombing at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, the Clinton administration has so far failed to push new anti-terrorism legislation through the GOP-controlled Congress. Part of the resistance stems from the legislation's controversial proposal to expand FBI wiretapping, which raises legitimate civil-liberties issues. But the legislation has also been hung up by what would seem a much more innocuous proposal: tagging explosives with chemical markers.

The administration has tried and failed since the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 to get even a study of the chemical measure approved. On Friday, after last-minute wrangling, a proposal for an independent agency outside of government to conduct such a study was included in a GOP measure that will be offered to the House. Its prospects are unclear.

The major obstacle in the path of chemical marker legislation is, unsurprisingly, the National Rifle Association. Why is the NRA fighting this measure? We talked with Bob Walker, Legislative Director of Handgun Control Inc., based in Washington D.C.

Why are these chemical markers -- taggants -- important?

Pipe bombs are being used more and more in this country. The potential for a homemade domestic terrorism industry is very, very strong, and if we're going to break up this industry it's vital to have some new enforcement tools.

How would taggants help?

They are identification marks which would enable investigators, after a blast has occurred, to identify who purchased the explosives.

How do taggants work?

They are microscopic pieces of material with coded information on them and are designed to survive the blast. Law enforcement officials can sweep the area, pick up these taggants, observe them under the microscope and find an identification number. This identification number would identify the batch of explosives and when it was made -- allowing investigators to identify the manufacturer, the specific batch which was manufactured and to whom that batch was ultimately sold, through the distribution process to the final purchaser.

Yet the National Rifle Association opposes the use of these markers.

The NRA, for nearly 20 years, has led the opposition to identification taggants, specifically in smokeless and black powders -- two of the more common explosives used in making homemade bombs and pipe bombs, like the one that went off in Atlanta. They led the lobbying last March when Congress refused to allow even a study of whether smokeless and black powders should have taggants placed in them.

But what do explosives have to do with guns?

Smokeless and black powders are used in firearms. They are also used to load antique muskets. Reloaders -- people who make their own ammunition -- use smokeless and black powders. The NRA claims that chemical markers would be unsafe, but there's no research to back that up. A 1980 study by the Office of Technological Assessment reported that the addition of identification taggants to one brand of smokeless powder might possibly degrade its performance. But there was nothing to suggest that it posed any specific kind of safety risk to the user. The Swiss have been using taggants in explosives now for over a decade with no reported problems.

So, it's really about gun control?

Yes, that is the underlying motivation. They are vehement about any form of gun control. It's not a matter of feasibility or safety or public safety. And they see this as a form of gun registration, or gun control.

Isn't equating chemical markers in explosives with gun registration and control a bit of a stretch, even for the NRA?

I suppose that they are arguing that people, particularly reloaders who use this smokeless or black powder, will ultimately find the police knocking on their door. Now, I don't see how the police would come knocking on their door unless that smokeless or black powder was used in a bomb.

One of the issues that we constantly run into with the gun lobby is what they call the "slippery slope argument." They insist that any gun control measure, however reasonable or responsible, is a step towards the complete banning of all firearms. When Congress debated the Brady Bill, the five-day waiting period to allow police to conduct a background check, they were adamant that this was a step towards gun confiscation. Similarly with the assault weapons ban, they insisted that Congress was attempting to ban all firearms. We don't support any law banning all firearms or the manufacture of handguns or anything like that. But we've always encountered with the NRA a constant, relentless opposition to almost any gun law.

Won't the bombing in Atlanta tip the scales against the NRA?

I don't think so. The National Rifle Association is still a very formidable lobby. I fear it may once again prevail.

Quote of the day

Triumph of the bill

"The most important question facing the (International Olympic Committee) is if the parade of nations has turned into a parade of sponsors. A threshold has been passed in Atlanta. When a company comes up with $40 million to be a sponsor, and then spends maybe $100 million more to market its Olympic investment, a corporation definitely starts to behave differently, tasteless to the point of absurdity."

-- University of Chicago professor John MacAloon, who specializes in the history of the Olympics and serves as an adviser to the IOC. (From "Commerical Clutter Irks Olympic Leaders, Who Vow Big Changes," in Friday's Wall Street Journal).

By Stephanie Losi

Stephanie Losi is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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