Foiling domestic terrorists with a background check


    Here’s a thought: If we really want to make life tougher for wannabe domestic terrorists, why not enact a federal law requiring background checks on the people who buy explosive powder? Because right now, any aspiring bomber can waltz in and get the goods, no questions asked.

    Hard as it may be to believe, that’s how Freedom works – thanks yet again to the gun-fetish lobby, which has worked assiduously, and successfully, to maximize our potential for misfit-initiated violence. Anyone can buy up to 50 pounds of explosive black powder without being pre-screened; anyone can buy unlimited amounts of black powder substitutes, including what’s known as “smokeless” powder, without being pre-screened. According to federal officials, the Boston Marathon bombs contained a blasting agent, most likely black or smokeless powder.

    The Republican mantra, post-Boston, is that President Obama is soft on terrorism (yeah, whatever). But if Republicans are really so tough on terrorism, let’s see whether they support the Senate bill, sponsored by New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg, that would close the aforementioned gaping loophole. Lautenberg, who is ailing, said in a statement Tuesday: “It defies common sense that anyone, even a terrorist, can walk into a store in America and buy explosive powders without a background check….Requiring a background check for an explosives permit is a small price to pay to ensure the safety of our communities.”

    I know this will shock you, but the NRA and its allies have worked hard to ensure that explosive powder purchases are barely regulated. Even 9/11 failed to budge them. After the towers fell, Congress passed something called the Safe Explosives Act – which probably should called the Safe From Screening Act, because that’s where current powder buyers get their free ride. Not only are they exempted from background checks, but the sellers aren’t even required to keep any purchase records.

    Granted, there’s a screening requirement for anyone who buys more than 50 pounds of black powder, but here’s some perspective: it takes only three pounds to make the kind of bomb that detonated in Boston.

    Bomb experts have been warning about the easy availability of powder all along. Reynold Hoover, a former agent in the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and president of an explosives consulting firm, warned 18 years ago, in a public policy journal, that smokeless and black powder “represent one of the greatest threats to the American public posed by bombers.”

    Hoover’s old warning is cited in a new report by the nonpartisan Violence Policy Center, which details how the gun lobby has spent more than 40 years shilling for its “corporate partners” in the explosives industry. But what’s really tragic (as recounted in the report) is how the feds, post-9/11, has been hamstrung by the loophole that exempts powder buyers from background checks.

    In July 2004, the ATF notified sellers in a letter that “explosives are frequently used by terrorists to cause destruction,” but because the powders “generally are exempt from the federal explosives laws,” all the feds could do was ask the sellers to be vigilant “on a voluntary basis.” Since the sellers were not required to run background checks, or to keep any records, perhaps they’d be willing to engage the buyers in conversation? From the letter: “In your conversations, you may be able to tell if something’s not quite right with someone’s request to obtain explosives.” Then the seller could voluntarily call the ATF’s toll-free number.

    By the way, have you wondered why the feds in the Boston case haven’t released any conclusive information about the actual powder, and where it came from? That’s because they’ve had trouble tracing it to the point of sale. And that’s because they are impeded by law from doing so. Explosives manfacturers aren’t required to place tracing elements – colored particles known as taggants – in their powder. They’re exempt, thanks again to the gun lobby. As far back as 1980, a congressional study stated: “Identification taggants would facilitate the investigation of almost all significant criminal bombings in which commercial explosives were used.” To no avail; the gun lobby’s definition of Freedom reigns supreme.

    But those loopholes are soft on terrorism. If we refuse to get tougher – and, really, what are the odds that Lautenberg’s bill will pass? – then be forewarned that the price of Freedom will continue to spike.


    Regarding that new Republican mantra about how Obama is soft on terrorism: The fun part of their argument is that, in their words, George W. Bush did a far better job on terrorism “after 9/11.” Which is a bit like saying that Lyndon Johnson had a fabulous presidency except for Vietnam.

    But since 9/11 is a tad tough to ignore, here’s the slam-dunk on Bush that will live in infamy – as reported in Ron Suskind’s book The One Percent Doctrine, courtesy of a summer of ’01 anecdote that the Bush camp has never sought to refute. Imagine if Obama had ever done something like this:

    Amid reports of a possible al Qaeda attack, a CIA briefer personally called Bush’s attention to the Aug. 6, 2001 memo entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” Bush reportedly heard the briefer out. Then he replied: “All right. You’ve covered your ass, now.”


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1




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