As one would expect with dealing with the media this didn’t turn out quite the way I intended but it’s not so distorted that I’m particularly annoyed.
I received a call yesterday from someone that identified himself as a reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. A young man was caught making pipe bombs in his dorm room. The reporter, Justin Vellucci, did a search about pipe bombs and found me via Boomershoot. He wanted to know how difficult it was to make a pipe bomb. He also wanted to know what laws had been broken. I told him I couldn’t speak to Pennsylvania law but I did know a little bit about Idaho, Washington, and Federal law.
I discussed how different laws were from state to state and that if he broke Federal law it was probably because he built a “destructive device”, not that he was making explosives. And from the sound of it he wasn’t really making explosives. Even though he was very polite and showed interest he probably was rolling his eyes when I explained the difference between high explosives and low explosives and the difference between a detonation and rapid burning as in the cartridge of a gun.
I explained it was trivial to make a pipe bomb. The toughest part was not getting blown up in the process. That’s also easy but not obvious you need to be concerned about the mechanism until it’s too late. We talked about the effects of such a bomb, how much damage it would do. I gave him a link to my web page on explosive effects. I explained that getting the materials was very easy and they couldn’t really be successfully restricted. The toughest was gun powder and even if it wasn’t available for purchase it could be made from potassium nitrate, sulfur, and carbon with the recipe being known for several hundred years. The toughest of those ingredients is the potassium nitrate and that can be made from manure.
After the conversation I followed up with this email:
From: Joe Huffman
Sent: Wednesday, December 06, 2006 1:39 PM
To: Justin Vellucci
Subject: Ease of making an explosive.
If you had read between the lines of our conversation you might have realized I regard it as futile to restrict access to materials in an attempt to improve public safety. Even easier than making your own gun powder is using match heads for the chemical portion of a pipe bomb.
Going beyond that I believe it is possible for me to be stripped naked, enter into your or almost any functioning office, emerge an hour later and have the room explode a few seconds after I exit. I haven’t tested this but I’ve seen enough demonstrations of the critical aspects to believe it is possible. See for example http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flour_bomb. Instead of flour I would use paper in your office to make the dust. I would then disperse it in the air and have it ignited by an electric spark.
The question then becomes, “What do we do to prevent these sort of things?” My response is that things can’t be restricted. The actions of people can be punished which serves as a deterrent in many cases. Beyond that we can sometimes infer intent and stop potential criminals. This was how, in the specific case we talked about, the hardware store people came to call law enforcement. The specific set of materials purchased raised suspicion. This sort of involvement and concern about public safety is the way things should work in a free society.
It would create a tremendous hardship on society to attempt restricting and/or regulating all the materials that could be used to harm people or property (anyone for registration and licensing of sharp sticks?). Instead, where there is high potential for materials to be misused the people that sell and work with those materials should assume a greater sense of responsibly and be aware of things that “aren’t quite right”. In the case of purchasing the gun powder it could be kept in a locked cabinet and the clerk could ask what appear to be a few casual questions like, “What caliber are you reloading?” “What sort of muzzle velocity are you getting out of that?” A legitimate customer will know the answers and volunteer them without skipping a beat. The potential criminal will not and will put the clerk on alert.
Yes, some criminals will be able to sneak through such a system. But the total cost to society will be lower even though we will have to suffer some criminal acts going through to completion.
This blog posting of mine from last week might be of interest to you as well:
Boomershoot Event Director
After all that here is what ended up in the newspaper:
One bomb-making expert said much of what Blattner needed could be found at home-improvement stores, and even gunpowder would not be tough to find.
“It really is very, very easy to do something like that,” said Joe Huffman, who organizes an event in Idaho where individuals use long-range precision rifles to shoot explosive targets. “The stupid thing is to do this in your dorm room.”
Other than the title of “bomb-making expert” it’s completely accurate. I can’t complain.