The Boston bombing probe might have been helped if the explosives were marked with microscopic identifiers called taggants. But the technology has long been off-limits, thanks to the National Rifle Association and its industry allies.
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Imagine this. A bomb goes off on a crowded American street. Dozens of people are killed and injured. Investigators have no leads except the bomb contained microscopic markers called taggants that tell police exactly where and when the explosives were manufactured. As NPR's Peter Overby reports, taggants are real, but the gun lobby and its industry allies blocked their use years ago.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Congress has had some fierce debates about putting taggants in explosives. It came up after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the Atlanta Summer Olympics bombing in 1996. The hottest question was whether taggants should be put into gunpowder. Here's a floor debate from 1996, Harold Volkmer, a pro-gun Democrat from Missouri.
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REPRESENTATIVE HAROLD VOLKMER: I don't believe in taggants in black powder. I think this study brings us to where you do have taggants in black powder. That's where it leads us, right down that road.
OVERBY: Taggants are microscopic plastic chips color-coded to identify a particular batch of explosives and designed to survive the explosion. The National Rifle Association argues they could dangerously destabilize gunpowder, also that they would cost too much, also, as the NRA put it in the early '90s, that they could be an early form of registration. Taggants are made by a Minneapolis company called Microtrace. It sells them for all sorts of products besides explosives. And it supplies the one country that requires them in explosives, Switzerland. The president of Microtrace is William Kerns.
WILLIAM KERNS: From our standpoint, you know, it's technology that we have and we make. And it has a function, and we know that it works in explosives.
OVERBY: Kerns says that years ago, taggants were tested on explosives in this country. He says that when a pickup carrying two people was blown up, investigators could follow the taggant trail.
KERNS: Didn't take long for them to apprehend the person who made the bomb.
OVERBY: He says the bomber was convicted and died in prison. But that came long before the wave of terrorist bombings when politics took over the debate. After the first World Trade Center bombing, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said taggant-free gunpowder would become the explosive of choice for terrorists. After Oklahoma City, President Bill Clinton sent Congress a bill to require taggants; Congress exempted gunpowder. The Atlanta Olympics pipe bomb led then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich to start negotiating on taggants with the Clinton administration. Other Republicans cut him off. Here's Republican Congressman Bill McCollum of Florida.
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REPRESENTATIVE BILL MCCOLLUM: There are questions about the taggant issue, but the responsible thing to do is to march through this with a study.
OVERBY: And that's what Congress did. Even now, manufacturers of high explosives feel that taggants aren't ready for prime time. That's according to Chris Ronay, president of the Institute of Makers of Explosives. Representing the gunpowder side of the argument are the NRA and the gun industry's trade group, the National Shooting Sports Foundation. They didn't respond to NPR inquiries today.
DAVID CHIPMAN: The frustrating thing to law enforcement and me in particular is we're not even having the discussion. It stopped.
OVERBY: David Chipman spent 25 years as an agent in the ATF. Now, he's an adviser to the advocacy group Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
CHIPMAN: Cops need to be able to solve crime. It's what the public demands. It's what the media is asking now: How did these people get these, you know, explosives? What are the explosives? And taggants, in theory, could've helped in that.
OVERBY: But instead, the idea of putting taggants in gunpowder is off the agenda. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.