Boston Bombing: Did NRA Lobbying Prevent the Investigators From Having a Key Piece of Evidence?

An explosive new allegation concerning the Boston Marathon bombing is sure to spark more debate about the willingness of the NRA to oppose any possible measure that may inconvenience gun owners. On Thursday, it was reported that investigators lacked a piece of evidence that is involved in other cases of crimes involving high explosives.

The method involves introducing taggants into gunpowder, widely believed to the explosive utilized in the pressure cooker bombs in the Boston Marathon bombing. Taggants are tiny physical and chemical markers that in the aftermath of an explosion provide a fingerprint for investigator to utilize in their investigations. The NRA has opposed introducing taggants into gunpowder ever since the idea was proposed to Congress by law enforcement officials.

A pilot program from 1977 to 1980 was conducted concerning the use of taggants in explosives. During the pilot program, the evidence utilized from taggants was utilized in 1979 to find and convict James McFillin, who killed Nathan Allen by booby trapping Allen’s truck so that TNT under the seat would explode when the ignition was switched on. The taggants identified the explosives as coming from a West Virginia plant and that some of that patch had gone to an explosive dealer who sold to McFillin before the crime. During a federal appeals court hearing the evidence from taggants was upheld, with the court ruling "the use of taggants in explosives rests upon well-established scientific principles."

A 1980 study by the Federal Office of Technology Assessment over the use of taggants made several observations.

"Assuming, for purposes of analysis, that stability questions are successfully resolved and that technical development is successfully completed, both identification taggants and detection taggants would be useful law enforcement tools against most terrorist and other criminal bombers."

And that

"A taggant program that did not include gunpowders would be of relatively limited utility as pipe bombs filled with gunpowder are used in a substantial number of bombings."

A study by Princeton University would say:

"When black powder bombs were detonated under near ideal recovery conditions, using the 8 ‘ x 12 ‘ x 20 ‘ bunker, an average of 1,100 taggants survived 1 lb of the FFFg powder."

And that:

"... taggants can probably survive pipe bombs filled with low-energy explosives and gunpowder; their survival in pipe bombs filled with higher energy explosives is uncertain."

The NRA opposed any type of study in 1996 in the wake of the Oklahoma City Bombing that killed 168 and injured more then 680 people. The NRA eventually agreed to partner with the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study on taggants in black and smokeless powder. The NRA then, however, released a press release on the study in 1999 claiming, that the study says, "Identification taggants in black and smokeless powder should not be implemented at the present time."

However a press release by the National Acadamy of Sciences on the same study said that:

"Identification taggants — materials coded with information that can be added to the powder by the manufacturer and read by investigators before or after detonation -- and an associated record-keeping system could be of further assistance in tracking down bombers in cases where current forensic techniques fail, the committee said. But additional research on these systems is needed to determine whether they are safe and effective."

And that"

"Research should be conducted to develop and test taggants that would be technically suitable for inclusion in black and smokeless powders should the future threat level warrant their use."

Little research since the 1999 study has been undertaken on creating taggants that could assist authorities with gunpowder-based bombs like those use in the Boston Marathon bombing.

We attempted to reach out for the NRA for a comment on this story and will update with any response that we receive.

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Gabriel Rodriguez

Gabriel Rodriguez is currently studying for a Masters in Applied Economics at Georgetown. He is a graduate of New College of Florida with a degree in Economics. He is interested in econometrics, statistical analysis, behavioral economics, and developmental economics.

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