Taggants And Gun Powders

Posted on July 29, 1999

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IDENTIFICATION taggants are microscopically color-coded particles that, if added to explosives or gun powders during their manufacturing, might facilitate tracing those products after a bombing back to the manufacturer. Then, through use of mandatory distribution records, tracing would continue through wholesaler and dealer levels to an original purchaser or point of theft. Detection taggants may be added to a product to facilitate detection of that product before it is exploded or burned in a crime.

Section 732 of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 required a general study of taggants as directed by the Secretary of the Treasury. The study is required to demonstrate that taggants: "will not pose a risk to human life and safety; will substantially assist law enforcement officers in their investigative efforts; will not substantially impair the quality of the explosive materials for their intended lawful use; will not have a substantially adverse effect on the environment; and the costs associated with the addition of the tracers will not out weigh benefits of their inclusion."

During the summer of 1996, Congress approved an NRA-backed proposal (an amendment to Section 732 in H.R. 3610, the Omnibus Consolidation Appropriations Act of 1997) that an independent body examine all technologies that allow explosives to be detected before a terrorist or criminal explodes his bomb in addition to those that will identify the explosive after a blast. NRA fought hard for the inclusion of this language, knowing that preventive technologies offer our best hope for enhanced public safety and more effective law enforcement. That independent body is the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which completed the study and published their findings and recommendations in a report titled: "Black and Smokeless Powders: Technologies for Finding Bombs and the Bomb Makers."

NAS Final Report on Black and Smokeless Powder

To conduct the study on black and smokeless powders, the National Research Council, the research body of the NAS, created the Committee on Smokeless and Black Powder which conducted the research and wrote the final report. In that final report, which was reviewed by an independent panel of experts with diverse perspectives and technical expertise, included the following findings:

  • Bombs using black and smokeless powders account for a small number of deaths and injuries each year. (Annually, 10 deaths and approximately 100 injuries.)

  • Information gathered by the BATF and the FBI regarding bombings is incomplete.

  • An effective taggant system with the associated record keeping would incur significant costs.

  • No taggant system has been found that is technically feasible for use in black and smokeless powders.


The Committee specifically recommended:
  • "Detection markers in black and smokeless powder should not be implemented at the present time."
  • "Identification taggants in black and smokeless powder should not be implemented at the present time."



The Committee`s recommendations were carefully directed to identify feasible and effective actions that would assist law enforcement to prevent bombings and to conduct investigations in their aftermath.The use of taggants or markers in black and smokeless powders were found to be unfeasible and of uncertain value. The Committee did however, recommend that improvements be made in the information collection done by federal agencies in two areas. First, a comprehensive database of the properties and chemical makeup of blackand smokeless powder products should be created. Second, a single comprehensive and searchable national database on bombing statistics should be established. The Committee found that the current records that are kept by the BATF and the FBI separately are incomplete and inadequate. The committee also recommended that further research be conducted on the use of dogs to detect explosives and the development of detection technology that would aid in wide area searches for explosives.

Expert Testimony

J. Christopher Ronay, president of the Institute of Makers of Explosives (IME), recently spoke before an NAS panel. Ronay is the former Chief of the FBI Explosives Unit, and in his 18 years there was involved in investigations of the Pan Am 103 and World Trade Center bombings and the Unabomber case. Prior to his FBI career, he commanded a U.S. Army explosives ordnance disposal detachment. Ronay said IME is "strongly opposed" to placing identification taggants in explosives. "Based on my many years in the war against terrorism, I urge you to recommend that funding be redirected toward the development of new explosives detection technologies . . . . Identification taggants will not deter terrorism."

Ronay also addressed the Swiss taggant experience, often grossly distorted by anti-gun politicians and the media. Switzerland passed legislation requiring taggants in explosives (but not black and smokeless powders) in 1980, and yet not one other nation has followed suit. Ronay said that although the Swiss program is cited as being useful to law enforcement, that claim "does not hold up to scrutiny." Addressing those bombings that Swiss police solve each year, he said, "in those cases there is no evidence in the record to show what role, if any, taggants played in the investigations." Ronay added, "I do not believe that taggants will save lives or prevent terrorist bombings. . . . I feel very strongly that there are more beneficial ways to spend our resources."

Much to the chagrin of the Clinton-Gore Administration, which sought to turn gun owners who possessed untagged propellants into criminals, the issue of identification taggants has, after two decades, moved from the political arena into the domain of scientific research.

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