Gun shoppers at the National Rifle Association meeting in April 2012, in St. Louis, Missouri. U.S. firearm sales sky-rocketed since the Newtown school massacre, as enthusiasts feared certain assault weapons would be banned. (Karen BLEIER / AFP/Getty Images)
Psst, want to blow something up?
Don’t sneak around corners, don a balaclava or wait until dark. Just buy a ticket to Houston, Texas for Friday’s National Rifle Association convention. There you can enjoy “the most spectacular displays of firearms, shooting and hunting accessories in the world,” in a friendly atmosphere with like-minded fellows.
And among the must-have items on offer are “black and smokeless powder,” the suspected explosives of the Boston Marathon bombings.
Thanks to persistent lobbying by the firearms industry and its allies in the NRA, critics say, both are virtually unregulated in the U.S.
While strict regulations have been slapped on ready-made bombs and high-octane powders, the two are exempted by a loophole in the “Safe Explosives Act” which was passed after Sept. 11.
“An individual can buy up to 50 pounds of black powder and any amount of smokeless powder without any licensing or background check,” says Nicole Flatow of ThinkProgress Justice. “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.”
The Washington-based Violence Policy Center, which lobbies for gun control, traced the resistance to controls on the explosives back to the 1970s Nixon era, when the NRA successfully lobbied to raise the amount of permitted black powder from five to 50 pounds.
But in spite of numerous criminal and domestic terrorist bombings, there has been no more progress on regulatory laws than on controlling firearms, which kill more than 11,000 people in the U.S. each year in murders, and thousands more in suicides.
The NRA’s answer to demands for tougher laws is “guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” And even the prospect of terrorism seems not to daunt its lobbyists.
“Bombs that use black or smokeless powder cause a relatively small number of deaths and injuries,” said a 1998 study by the National Research Council. “But the target is larger than the physical location of the explosion, since a goal is to induce panic or fear among the general population.”
And it pointed out, black and smokeless powder were the most common substances used in criminal bombings.
Other officials have cited the use of the explosives for pipe bombs.
After the recent Boston bombing, critics blamed the NRA’s opposition to allowing tracking chemicals in explosives for delays in identifying the suspects.
“The inability to quickly track gunpowders in the Boston bombs is due to government policy designed and promoted by the NRA,” said investigative journalist David Cay Johnson.
Reynold Hoover, a former justice department alcohol, tobacco and firearms agent – and later president of an explosives consulting firm – was even more trenchant about black and smokeless powders.
“Together,” he said in an article in the Kansas Journal of Law & Public Policy, “these two ‘unregulated’ bomb ingredients represent one of the greatest threats to the American public posed by bombers.”
But even as Americans mourn and lament the Boston bombings, and Congress points fingers at law enforcement agencies for missing the clues to the suspected perpetrators, the NRA’s exhibitors are reloading for a new round of sales at this “premier event to establish the most profitable relationship with current and new customers.”
So...will that be one bomb, or two?
Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, human rights and politics from the former Soviet Union to the U.S., Middle East and South Asia. She worked with director Shelley Saywell on the documentary Devil’s Bargain: A Journey Into the Small Arms Trade.