After law enforcement mentioned that the Boston marathon bombs were likely constructed using gunpowder, ThinkProgress investigated the state of our regulation in regard to this explosive.
And after documenting the NRA's spirited defense of straw buyers of guns, domestic abusers' gun rights, along with defending felons from being disarmed, it seems merely the logical conclusion of their convictions that the NRA would have a hand in the loose regulation of gunpowder, leading to tragedies like what occurred in Boston.
ThinkProgress explains the nature of the problem, and the NRA's involvement in making things worse.
While explosives such as ready-made bombs and major quantities of high-octane powders are subject to stricter regulation and must be registered with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, federal law exempts several key types of explosives from licensing and background check requirements. Even after the post-9/11 Safe Explosives Act, an individual can buy up to 50 pounds of black powder and any amount of smokeless powder (a more expensive blasting powder that leaves less residue) without undergoing any licensing or background check. Sellers of both products are not required to maintain any record-keeping of their sales, and sellers of smokeless power need not even maintain a license. Black powder is the most common explosive used in pipe bombs because it is so inexpensive, according to a 2005 Department of Justice report. For context, experts say it only takes about three pounds of powder to make one of the pressure-cooker bombs used in the Boston Marathon incident.
Since black and smokeless powders are used as gunpowder, it is unsurprising that the National Rifle Association had a hand in blocking stricter regulation. As a new Violence Policy Center report explains, the NRA and another gun industry trade association lobbied against regulation of black and smokeless powder repeatedly to achieve the now-codified exemptions for gun powders. And the NRA has a particular interest in lobbying for powder regulation, due to “corporate partners” that specialize in the sale of powders, gun accessories or ammunition. In 1970, the gun lobby achieved an exemption for up to five pounds of black powder and all “small arms ammunition” (which includes smokeless powder). Three years later, that exemption was expanded to 50 pounds.
So, there are alternatives, naturally. TP mentions "homemade" blasting powders derived from everyday household products, along with powder taken from fireworks. Being from Pennsylvania originally, I know how it is with those; tougher fireworks laws don't stop folks from crossing the border to a neighboring state with lax regulation. But many bombings reported to the ATF cite black powder, and again, why not? It's cheap, and readily available -- why bother making your own, why take the risk?
The continuing danger posed by the exemptions for smokeless and black powder has been noted by experts. In a review of the implementation of the “Safe Explosives Act” (SEA) passed in the wake of the September 11th attacks, the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Justice identified “several issues related to the regulation and safeguarding of explosives in the United States that while not addressed in the SEA nonetheless are relevant to public safety.” Among the issues identified was ATF’s limited authority over smokeless and black powder. The report noted, “Because black powder is relatively inexpensive (between $5 and $15 per pound), it is the most common explosive used in pipe bombs. Additionally, the ATF does not regulate smokeless powder, a more expensive explosive used in the manufacturing of firearms ammunition.”And like loose regulation of guns, the availability and ease of use makes it easier for more of these crimes to happen.
And while the fireworks industry reportedly will consider stronger regulation if it turns out that fireworks were used, ThinkProgress mentions a new proposal to regulate explosive powders like gunpowder, and they're not very optimistic about the NRA's likely response. Neither am I.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) proposed a bill last week that would require a background check before any purchase of explosive powders, and would make it illegal to manufacture homemade explosives without a permit. The bill, of course, is likely to fall under the same NRA chokehold that blocked Lautenberg’s other more prominent background checks bill.