photo of explosives and detonation device

School Shooters Won’t Turn To Bombs If We Prevent Them From Getting Guns

by Tony Wyman

Those opposed to restrictions on gun ownership like to suggest that kids attacking schools with guns would switch to bombs if we made it much harder for them to access firearms.

But, the reality is that just isn’t true and the reason why is important to note.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the federal government recognized that terrorists, both foreign and domestic, were an increasing threat, one that needed to be addressed with new preventive measures. One of those measures was the creation of a new program in the Department of Homeland Security.

The Bomb-making Materials Awareness Act, or BMAP, was created to monitor the sales, distribution and use of chemicals such as pool sanitizers, fertilizers and paint removers that could be used to create powerful bombs that could potentially murder large numbers of Americans in the way alt-right terrorist Timothy McVeigh did.

Ammonium nitrate
Ammonium nitrate is a fertilizer that was used by terrorist Timothy McVeigh to kill 168 and injure 680 in Oklahoma City in 1995.

McVeigh, angered at the government for the deaths of members of the Branch Davidian cult during a stand-off with federal officers in Waco, Texas, blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 and injuring 680 men, women and children.

McVeigh and fellow right-wing extremist Terry Nichol constructed a 5000-pound bomb made of ammonium nitrate and nitromethane.  Ammonium nitrate is a fertilizer that gives off oxygen and nitrogen when heated or dissolved in water.  It is also highly explosive because, under the right conditions, it gives off a massive amount of flammable oxygen gas.

Nitromethane, commonly called “nitro,” is the primary ingredient in top fuel drag racing. It is highly combustible and very easy to explode. And, like ammonium nitrate, when McVeigh and Nichols packed the two chemicals into the back of a rented van on April 15, 1995, which they left outside the Murrah Building to detonate.

Those dangerous chemicals were too easy to get in large quantities during the late 1990s, but that all changed when, in 2008, the Department of Homeland Security issued new standards, reinforcing those that already existed under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standard (CFATS), and added ammonium nitrate to a list of materials, monitored by the federal government, that could be used to build bombs.

The new rules required prospective buyers to register with the federal government, apply for registration numbers each time they purchased the fertilizer, and to submit to extensive terrorism background checks. 

According to the DHS, the regulations and relentless government oversight have prevented more terrorist attacks McVeigh’s largely because the program share data and threat information with community law enforcement teams across the country. “The program is designed to be integrated into existing state and local outreach and liaison programs – such as Information Liaison Officer (ILO) or Terrorism Liaison Officer (TLO) – community policing efforts, and private sector security and training programs,” says the program’s website.

In addition to information sharing, the BMAP office also has training tools for private and commercial safety and security officers and an array of training programs for state and local law enforcement officers and other first responders. 

This coordinated approach to dealing with the threat of another bombing like the Oklahoma City attack has had great success.  Among many other terrorist attacks thwarted by the program, an attack on a Miami mall in October 2017 was prevented by FBI agents working on information from BMAP data.

Also in 2017, agents monitored a domestic terrorist and prevented his planned attack in Oklahoma City designed by the perpetrator, Jerry Drake Varnell, to mimic the Murrah Building attack, after getting a tip from an informant trained under the BMAP program.

Under current BMAP guidelines, anyone attempting to buy more than 25 pounds of a fertilizer or any other item on the Office of Bombing Prevention watch list must register and go through a terrorist screening evaluation.

So, any student, prevented from acquiring an AR-15 would come to the attention of the federal agency dedicated to preventing acts of terrorism and violence using bombs if he tried to acquire enough material to cause a serious explosion.

Of course, terrorists planning on bomb attacks on a school could create smaller bombs. That is what Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the two Columbine High School terrorists, did. In fact, their attack was primarily planned as a bombing.

Security Camera still of Columbine killers Harris and Klebold
The Columbine killers planned to use bombs to murder their classmates, but their weapons failed to detonate.

Klebold and Harris planned to use their guns to shoot fleeing students after the bombs they placed around campus detonated. Their plan failed, however, when none of the large bombs exploded, even after the killers threw a Molotov cocktail at one and shot another with their guns.

And that is the problem with bombs: they are unpredictable. Making them, even from manuals like the Anarchist’s Cookbook, is harder than it seems.

They often fail to explode or explode at the wrong times. Success is much less predictable using bombs to attack a school than guns. In fact, had Klebold and Harris had nothing but bombs as weapons to use against their classmates, the only fatalities that day might well have been limited to the terrorists, themselves.

So, what can we learn from the success of BMAP approach and how can those lessons be applied to prevent school shootings? First, government action can’t take as long as it did for BMAP.  The McVeigh terrorist attack took place in 1995, but the government didn’t take action to monitor the primary chemical in the Murrah Building attack until 2008. Thirteen years was too long to enact a measure credited with preventing bombings of the magnitude of the Oklahoma City bombing.

Second, the federal government can play an important role in helping state and local officials learn about potential threats to their communities. One important place to start is knowing where to look for possible threats. That is the benefit of the registry of buyers of potentially dangerous chemicals. But current federal laws prohibit the government from creating registration lists of guns.  And, without that list, it is very difficult to connect students identified as possibly being threats to their schools with the firearms capable of making their threats into a reality.

The 1986 Firearms Owner Protection Act prohibited the government from creating a national registry of firearm dealer’s records, limited Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents from inspecting a dealer more than once per year, reduced the definition of what “engaging in the business” of selling firearms meant. It also reduced regulation on the sale and transfer of ammunition.

If that act was repealed, the federal government could establish a list of persons suspected of being a threat to schools and could use that list to prohibit the transfer of guns from the original owner to the potential school shooter.

Undoubtedly, groups opposed to any restrictions on gun ownership would view such a registry as a threat to their Second Amendment rights, but as times change, as school shootings become all too common, gun laws may have to change with them.

The fact Americans are willing to subject themselves to vastly higher levels of security screenings at airports to prevent another 9/11 or another Shoe Bomber shows we have a willingness to make needed changes to enhance public safety. But, do we need a school terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 to get us to make common sense changes to gun laws?  

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