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Exploding targets: shooting aid or a 'bomb kit for dummies?'

By Mike M. Ahlers and Rene Marsh, CNN
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Mon September 9, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Videos proliferate of "exploding targets"
  • Many YouTube videos show the product being misused
  • U.S. Forest Service blames targets for 16 wildfires
  • Maryland regulates the targets; predicts other states will follow

Federalsburg, Maryland (CNN) -- At gun stores from coast to coast, and on the Internet, they are known as "exploding targets."

But the man who oversees Maryland's bomb squad has another name for them: Explosive Kits for Dummies.

Amazingly simple to assemble -- just pour two powders into one container and shake -- the targets are a safe and fun way to enhance target shooting, manufacturers say.

Shoot it with a bullet from a safe distance, and you'll be rewarded with a concussive blast and a cloud of smoke, indicating you've hit your target.

But if you search YouTube for "Tannerite" -- the most popular brand -- and you'll find more than 100,000 videos depicting the use -- and more frequently, the misuse -- of the product.

On-line videos show people in a veritable contest to see who can detonate the most explosives in the most innovative way, demolishing pumpkins and watermelons, dead cows and pigs, washing machines and refrigerators, old cars and trucks, Elmo dolls and even a trailer home.

To heighten the impact, diehards mixed it with gasoline, diesel fuel or propane tanks, creating explosions that crater the land, trigger car alarms, and shaking nearby communities.

In one video that is now an Internet staple, a Minnesota man in 2008 detonated 100 pounds of Tannerite in the dump box of an old dump truck, sending the truck aloft -- while rattling a nearby nuclear power plant and, inconveniently, the police department.

The nuclear plant went into a short lockdown and the man later pleaded guilty to two felonies involving explosives.

Last year, Maryland became the first state to regulate exploding targets, requiring users to be trained and licensed to handle explosives. Some California jurisdictions have also interpreted state law to restrict use of the targets.

And last month, exploding targets got even more notoriety when the U.S. Forest Service banned the targets on its property in five western states (Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas) saying the targets ignited 16 fires on Forest Service lands coast-to-coast since January 2012. The cost of extinguishing those fires: more than $33 million.

Forest Service officials say they hope to extend the year-long ban, and extend it nationwide.

And in March, the FBI distributed a bulletin to law enforcement agencies nationwide warning that exploding targets could be used "as an explosive for illicit purposes by criminals and extremists" and its components could be used to make IEDs.

One state's decision

Maryland Chief Deputy State Fire Marshal Joseph Flanagan said he fought to regulate exploding targets after the product appeared on local gun store shelves.

Gun stores were giving Maryland residents a "false sense that it was OK to use," he said, even though customers unknowingly broke Maryland law preventing them from "manufacturing" explosives whenever they combined the targets' two ingredients.

So Flangan pushed a bill to expand the definition of explosive to include "two or more components" when packaged together that create a bomb.

The bill failed on its first two attempts, but passed in 2012 after a representative from the National Rifle Association signed a letter saying the NRA was taking "no position" on the bill.

Gun rights advocates did not oppose the measure "because there are so many other things that are more important to us, and it doesn't really involve guns," said John H. Josselyn, legislative vice president of Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore. "We looked at it, considered the impact on our members and wrote it off as another feel-good issue by the left wing that has nothing better to do."

Josselyn said he remains "philosophically" opposed to the restrictions since "we banned one more thing that wasn't causing a problem."

Flanagan acknowledges that exploding targets had not caused many problems in Maryland. But, he said, as the products began appearing on local store shelves, Maryland wanted to be in front of the problem.

"This is a high explosive and it belongs in the category with other high explosives," Flanagan said. "We're not going to wait for an incident to occur where this product is used, where it's just purchased off the shelf. We are not sorry for the action we took."

Fire marshals from several other states have sought Maryland's guidance as they contemplate similar regulations, he said.

In Indiana this year, self-described "very pro-gun" Republican state Sen. Jim Merritt introduced a bill to require retailers to place Tannerite in locked displays, and to require that purchasers to be at least 18. There are currently no age limits on its purchase.

The bill died under the weight of legislative business, Merritt told CNN, although he may introduce it again.

"I considered this a homeland security issue, and I can envision this being a real problem for law enforcement someday," Merritt said.

Few federal restrictions

Exploding targets consist of ammonium nitrate (an oxidizer) and aluminum powder (a fuel). But because neither component individually is explosive, they not regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF).

Once the components are mixed, the results is an explosive material and subject to ATF regulations.

However, under federal law, individuals can manufacture explosives for their own personal, non-business use. There is no federal limit on the amount of explosives an individual can make.

Federal law, in short, does not prohibit exploding targets.

But, federal officials say, federal law does regulate the manufacture of explosive devices, and federal laws could be used to prosecute individuals who use the targets in the construction of explosive devices. The intent of the individual is a factor in determining legality, officials said.

Some state and local governments have taken action against sports shooters, especially in cases in which they've mixed large volumes of the target ingredients.

In the case of Brian Childs, the Minnesota man who shot at the 100 pounds of Tannerite in the dump truck, prosecutors viewed the truck not as a target, but as a bomb.

"It looks like they legally bought (the components). It was shipped to them by the Tannerite people," said Chris Schrader, assistant county attorney for Goodhue County.

But when the components were mixed and placed in the dump truck, "we looked at our definition of an explosive device and it definitely qualified," Schrader said.

"It was how they used it, which was enormously dangerous and ill-conceived," Childs said. "It was enormously reckless how they were using it. They had no idea what they were doing and you can tell by their reaction (in a videotape of the incident)."

According to a police report, a large piece of metal flew over Childs head, even though he was 300 yards from the blast.

Fire problem

Tannerite Sports, the Oregon-based manufacturer of the most popular brand of explosive targets, said it is being harmed by the widespread misuse of the product. And by people wrongly claiming that other products are "Tannerite."

"You can Google all day long and the first thing that will be popping up, people will be misusing our product and other products, other brands of binary exploding targets. It's a misuse," said Dena Woerner, a publicist for Tannerite Sports.

"Our produce was created to be used as a shot indicator. With Tannerite, you can see if you actually hit your target without having to walk down the range. And when you misuse a product, you could potentially be breaking the law."

The rampant misuse of exploding targets is a "threat to our business," Woerner concedes, so much so that the company is now soliciting videos of people using the product as intended.

"If people get hurt they're going to be more regulations and restrictions. We want people to be able to have fun with the product ... if they keep misusing it, people may not have that liberty anymore."

But federal officials take issue with Tannerite's claims that their product cannot result in fires.

At a press conference announcing the ban on exploding targets in certain national forests, it released a video showing a bale of hay catching fire after an exploding target was shot. The target was Tannerite, said Forest Service spokesman Lawrence Lujan.

Lujan said other brands also cause fires, and the Forest Service is likely to extend its ban to other regions.

A big bang

At a farm on Maryland's Eastern Shore, bomb squad member Matt Wrenn takes aims a Winchester rifle at targets at a range bounded by soybean fields, woods and an earthen berm.

He flawlessly shoots at a series of targets set up to demonstrate the fire marshal's concerns about exploding targets.

First, a one-pound binary target sitting on a stump, as intended by the manufacturer. Then he flawlessly shoots at targets in front of a human silhouette, a watermelon, and finally, an old bomb squad protective suit. It shreds part of the suit, dislodging one of the protective plates.

Looking at the damaged bomb suit, Flanagan says he has no reservations about restricting access to the targets. He believes the targets are dangerous, even when used as intended.

"It (the explosive ingredients) are all in a kit. It's already made for me. I have instructions on how to do it. It's an explosive kit for dummies, and it's pretty easy to make."

Says his bomb squad commander, Jack Waldner, "The fact of the matter is, this is recreational use of explosives by people who have not been trained."

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