Second Amendment

Sen. Lautenberg Wants Background Checks To Buy Gunpowder, Eyes Laws of Chemistry For Further Restriction


Flour mill explosion
Public Domain

I suppose it was inevitable that, after Monday's horrific Boston bombing attack turned out to be the result of crude chemistry and hardware supplies clamped into a pressure cooker, somebody would propose restrictions on anything that can go BANG! And, strictly speaking, we should probably be thankful that, rather than limit the cooks of the nation to hot plates and sterno, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-God's Waiting Room) proposes "to require that sales of explosive powder be subject to a background check." If this profoundly silly proposal makes it into the law books, it might well slightly inconvenience the nation's reloading hobbyists, who purchase gunpowder to save money on ammunition. But there's no reason to believe it would constitute even a minor speedbump for terrorists, or that the perpetrator of Monday's horror show would have been stopped by such a check.

From Sen. Lautenberg's office:

WASHINGTON, D.C.—In the wake of the deadly bombing attacks in Boston, U.S. Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) today announced that he will reintroduce legislation he has proposed in a prior Congress to require that sales of explosive powder be subject to a background check.  He will also file the legislation as an amendment to the gun violence prevention bill currently on the Senate floor.

Current law allows an individual to purchase as much as 50 pounds of explosive "black powder" without a background check, and also permits an individual to purchase unlimited amounts of dangerous "smokeless powder" and "black powder substitute" without a background check.  Sen. Lautenberg's proposal would change that and require a background check for any purchase of these explosive powders.  These powders can be used as the explosive material in assembling pipe bombs, used in the Columbine school shooting, and pressure cooker bombs, which may have been used in the recent Boston attack.

Purchasing commercial gunpowder is a nice convenience for hobbyists because it provides consistent powder of known quality and stability. But making stuff blow up is not hard. I can't be the only person who scorched part of his home as a kid with black powder concocted from a library book recipe. Cormac McCarthy's excellent Blood Meridian includes a rather detailed recipe for making a large quantity of the stuff while running for your life.

Nastier explosives can be concocted with ease, too. I had a high school chemistry teacher who delighted in pranking his colleagues with nitrogen triiodide. Not hard stuff to make, as it turns out.

When I was a prisoner resident of New York City and found my cap and ball revolver separated from a reliable source of powder by the metropolis's restrictive laws, a little experimenting revealed that crushed matcheads made an imperfect, but adequate substitute. The Internet is full of all sorts of interesting workarounds, of varying ease, sensibility and reliability.

Even simple flour can explode under the right circumstances (see the photo up above) — those circumstances occurring all too easily for those who manufacture the stuff or store large quantities. The bloody Oklahoma City bombing was committed with an explosive made from common fertilizer and fuel oil.  The fact of the matter is, preventing stuff from burning or blowing up can sometimes be a trickier task than causing explosions. So many common ingredients, from gasoline to sugar, can be used to cause mayhem, that Lautenberg's further proposal to "[m]ake it illegal to manufacture homemade explosives without a permit," falls just shy of a ban on naughty thoughts in terms of unenforceability.

But commercial gunpowder of the sort that Sen. Lautenberg wants to restrict is a handy, safe product for people who don't want to commit mayhem, but would rather buy a couple of pounds of powder at a time so they can load ammunition inexpensively or fire a reproduction musket. If you're trying to give them a hard time just for its own sake, this bill does just that, and not much else.

As I write, the authorities have images of "persons of interest" in the Boston bombing, but nobody in custody and no names. It's not clear, at all, that whoever committed the bombing would have had a criminal record of any sort to be caught by a background check. But it is certain that plenty of alternative means of creating explosives would have been available, if commercial gunpowder was not.

NEXT: Biden Continues Pushing Bad Stats while Stumping for Gun Control

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Watching Democrats die on this hill is just glorious.

    Democrats are to gun control as Southern Republicans are to bizarre comments about rape. They have to know it can’t end well, but they just keep fucking doing it.

  2. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-God’s Waiting Room)

    While from a commenter, that line would pass without comment, nary an eyelash batted.

    But from an editor, well it is striking. 😛

    1. And funny as hell.
      Way to go JD!

    2. And I want to know what’s the fucking hold-up? C’mon God, call this asswhistle home.

    3. Lautenberg is older than the dirt he’ll soon be napping in.

  3. Nobody tell Senator Senile that propane and gasoline are explosive. (In fact the most powerful conventional bombs in the inventory are fuel-air-explosives)

    I don’t want to go through a background check every time I turn on the heat or fill my car.

    1. He’s from NJ, they can’t even pump their own gas. Surely the attendant does the background check.

  4. Kind of reminds me how the primary reason that we have a problem with meth labs exploding all over the place is that the feds used regulations like this to cut off access to the chemicals needed for the safer methods of producing methamphetamines. Which did nothing to solve the problem with meth use, but maximized the risk to the general public while it’s going on.

    Likewise this will do nothing to stop terrorists, but will increase the number of people injured at range accidents when the guy in the lane next to them has his gone exploded because he tried making his own gunpowder and has no clue what he’s doing.

    1. feature not bug

  5. Worst sitting Senator. This fucker almost banned model rocketry. Then there is the Lautenberg Amendment which stripped gun rights for past misdemeanor convictions. In a free society there would be urinals constructed on Frank’s grave.

    1. He’s not that bad anymore – now that he’s to old and senile to do much of anything. The kid fucker we elected in NJ actually blocked the resolution praising Margaret Thatcher yesterday.

      1. “The kid fucker we elected in NJ actually blocked the resolution praising Margaret Thatcher yesterday.”

        Hardly the worst thing done by a sitting senator. Hell it’s obviously not the worst thing done by him personally

        1. It’s just a petty act by a worthless petty piece of leftist shit (who supposedly represents me).

          1. You want to swap for one of California’s?

      2. I actually don’t want legislatures involved in shit like that anyway.

        1. The more time they spend on symbolic shit that doesn’t do anything, the less time they have to spend on symbolic shit that curtails liberty.

  6. Ok, now I understand. New Jersey is the cesspool of the USA. There is nowhere worse.

  7. Goddammit. I knew this shit was coming.

  8. Lautenberg was senile the first time I saw him run in New Jersey …. in1994. (True story.)

  9. Yes, my 17 year old daughter who shoots thousands of rounds during competition trap, skeet and sporting clays every year and reloads her own ammo to keep costs down clearly is out to terrorize the world when I bring home her 8 lb container of black powder once a month to keep up.

    The worst part about this is, the mere suggestion of checks or restrictions on powder purchase by these idiots might cause a run up in price and shortage in supply. It’s already expensive and hard enough to get my hands lead shot, now the powder is going to be a problem to.

  10. And pressure cookers too … shall we require a background check for these dastardly items?

  11. Depending on how the bill defines explosive powder, it might put bakeries out of business across the country.

    And if Kirk can make black powder while on the run from a Gorn, it’s probably childishly simple to do so when not in such a hurry…

    1. It is 7th Century technology. Three commonly available ingredients. Measure, mix, let it settle for a bit, and it’s gunpowder.

  12. And fertilizer …. should not we require background checks for it. I’m sure it will only cause a slight delay at the hardware store when you pick it up …. or at the farm and ranch supply. Honestly, you know who you are and you just can’t be trusted.

  13. No hat tip? Bah.

  14. Note: We use gunpowder to reload for a lot more than just saving money. We are less susceptible to price disruptions and are able to manufacture significantly higher quality, custom tailored ammunition.

  15. let’s not forget the horrors of exploding salami.

    1. I shudder when I stop to think how many times my wife sent my precious little children off to school with a cold-cut-containing Lunchable in their backpacks.

  16. If only one child’s life is saved, it will all have been worth it. Won’t someone please think of the children?

  17. We’ve been down this road before. The most likely fallout will be a push for “taggants” — an additive consisting of tiny granules identifying the lot number of the powder. The idea appeared in the 1970s and has been periodically resurrected several times since. It was bad then and it’s bad now. Adding inert material to propellants will change the weights of charges used in ammunition reloading. Some of those loads have been published for over a century. Also, the inert taggants are not guaranteed to mix throughout the powder uniformly causing safety issues resulting from a round that is loaded with too much or too little powder.

    What’s really annoying about all this is that smokeless powder actually makes a pretty poor bomb. It would have been a far worse event if the perpetrator had used ammonium nitrate or any of dozens other similarly easy to obtain, and probably cheaper, alternatives.

    1. What’s really annoying about all this is that smokeless powder actually makes a pretty poor bomb. It would have been a far worse event if the perpetrator had used ammonium nitrate or any of dozens other similarly easy to obtain, and probably cheaper, alternatives.


      Compare the footage of the Marathon bombs to the cell phone footage of the West, TX explosion. The AN explosion looked much more violent, which isn’t surprising, as the detonation velocity of AN is, IIRC, about two to three times that of the expanding gas’s velocity from deflagrating smokeless powder.

  18. LottenBUG needs to be recalled. He is one of the major reasons why we need term limits. Fienstien ,Shummer, Boxer and a few others and also some Republicans also need to go.

  19. Sen. Lautenberg, D from New Jersey unfortunately only another Fruit Loop added to the box of lawmakers anxious to have their names added to yet more unnecessary legislation requiring background checks of the American Public. Exactly what background check or other process of actually vetting a political candidate for office is actually performed as American’s know of the millions of dollars the President paid to have his background sealed and yet he became President of the United States of America? So is it only the wealthy may bypass background checks? Subjected to this mania also brings to mind the next attempt to purchase some lawn fertilizer or possibly Scotts Turf Builder plus only to have a background performed on my lawn and cavity search of my person?

  20. I suppose next we will need background checks for those horrible flammables, gasoline and cooking oil.

  21. Gun powder is not classified as an explosive; its classified as a propellent. Although the president tried to have the EPA reclassifiy it a few years ago and it went over like a lead ballon. They quickly backed off as the election was down the road but I would emagine all bet are off now. Interestly, Biden talked about more excecutive actions regarding fireams are forthcomming. Another attempt by the left to reframe the discussion to take advatage of those who are uninformed; typical.

  22. I suppose the Senator has never seen the result of the detonation of grain dust in a grain elevator/silo.

    Ban corn…for the children.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.