A better way to track a bomber

Tom Zoellner and Sam Kleiner (Los Angeles Times) | April 28, 2013

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 because of surveillance videotape, but the FBI might have been able to do it faster if tiny plastic markers had been part of the small-arms propellant packed into the pressure-cooker bombs. These little chips, called “taggants,” have been around for close to 40 years, and their crime-solving capability is impressive. But they’re not used today because of one formidable opponent: the National Rifle Assn.

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 University of Wisconsin that killed a graduate student. Explosions always create residue, and Livesay figured out that gunpowder could be seeded with bits of melamine plastic, which cannot be destroyed or melted. Each particle is about a tenth of a millimeter across and contains a layering of eight to 10 colors. They look like pepper flakes, and the specific color signature can be read with an infrared scanner, telling an investigator where that batch of explosive was produced and perhaps even the retail store where it was purchased.

After the Oklahoma City bombing revived fears of domestic terrorists in 1995, the Clinton administration asked the Treasury Department to study how taggants might be used as a traceable element in dynamite and gunpowder. But the NRA complained that the program could result in a registry of gun owners (the same argument that sank the recent attempt at a universal background check for firearms purchases).

Jim Pasco, a former assistant director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said the NRA “objected to record-keeping.” Manufacturers would have to keep logs of when and where different batches of explosives were distributed to retail outlets, which are already required to maintain records of purchases of explosives. The trail this generated would be broad — many retailers and many purchasers — but the process still came too close to the gun lobby’s discomfort with government surveillance.

Read more at: http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-zoellner-taggants-boston-nra-20130428,0,3806681.story

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