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Can We Stop Consumers from Purchasing Pressure Cookers?

Eric Reed

NEW YORK (MainStreet) —As is by now common knowledge, on April 15 multiple bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon killing three people and injuring as many as 144 others. Two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, have been accused of the attack, but even that hasn't stopped a nationwide search for answers, some of which might come from an unlikely place: the local shopping mall.

According to authorities the bombs used by the Tsarnaev brothers were a surprisingly sophisticated design that fused explosive nitrates likely taken from fireworks with household pressure cookers and triggered with the remote controllers for toy cars. By adding nails and bearings to act as shrapnel, these appliances became weapons deadly enough that the surviving brother has been charged with using a weapon of mass destruction.

In the aftermath of these attacks we have to ask ourselves, what happens next? When terrorists hijacked airplanes we could respond by increasing airport security. We could respond to dedicated explosives with an intelligence network to help sweep them off our streets. We even responded to the slaughter of children at Newtown Elementary, with our leaders rushing to confront the NRA. So how do we prevent a Tsarnaev copycat from getting hold of what he needs to build another bomb when it's all right there on the shelf?

The short and tragic answer is, we can't.

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Williams Sonoma stores in the Boston area reportedly yanked pressure cookers from their shelves out of respect, but this is not a widespread phenomenon.

As of printing, no state or federal government is discussing regulation on household goods in the wake of the Boston bombing. The idea has even become a punchline for some, with at least one politician mockingly comparing it to gun control legislation.

Ultimately this is unsurprising, although more than a little gratifying, considering that at the end of the day virtually any consumer product can be repurposed for violence. We didn't regulate garden supplies after the Oklahoma City fertilizer bomb, nor the plumbing industry when pipe bombs went off at Atlanta's 1996 Olympic Games. We can't treat appliances any differently. Two men found a way to stretch a benign tool in a perverse direction, but that doesn't mean we can try to bubble wrap the nation. April 15 wasn't even the first time we've seen a pressure cooker bomb, as one was unsuccessfully used in the 2010 attempted Times Square bombing.

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The fact is, there's simply too much out there for us to ever regulate our way to perfect safety. If we were to crack down on everything that not only is dangerous but could also become so, the gas grill industry would shut down overnight. Hardware stores, stocked with shelves full of shrapnel, would become permit-only and cookers would simply be the first on a long list of pneumatic devices we would need to ban outright. Needless to say, we could forget about driving cars.

According to Michael Clark, a retired FBI special agent and Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of New Haven, law enforcement long ago adapted to this reality. Instead of trying to regulate every product that could inventively kill, law enforcement focuses on intelligence and information.

"[You don't] restrict access so much but perhaps to track individuals who might be ordering large amounts of certain products," he said. "There's a program in place where you educate people and companies you know sell certain products that could be used in bombs. When a customer comes along who they're not familiar with or an order comes out of nowhere, or any kind of suspicious order comes in, there's a system in place to alert law enforcement."

The program is called the Bomb Making Materials Awareness Program, "BMAP." Run jointly by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, it attempts to stay on top of the marketplace through information. According to its website, "BMAP outreach materials are distributed by local law enforcement to local businesses to help employees more easily identify homemade explosives precursor chemicals and improvised explosive device (IED) components, and recognize suspicious purchasing behavior that could indicate potential bomb-making activities."

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Still, even this can't really respond to the idea of cookware as a tool of terror. Pressure cookers are simply too widespread, with Fagor, the pressure cooker brand used in the Boston bombings, selling more than 50,000 units in the last year alone. Since it only takes one device to build a bomb, there's almost no chance to find useable information.

"When you come to pressure cookers, someone ordering five pressure cookers wouldn't trigger any response," Clark said. "That can be a way that you can get overwhelmed with just too much information that's not actionable... But in the Tim McVeigh world where you're ordering a lot of fertilizer and you've never ordered fertilizer before, that's where this would work."

The fact is, we seem to have a hard enough time just regulating tools that actually are designed to kill people. Try to stay one step ahead of every creative lunatic out there and pretty soon the police will be drowning in data and we'll need to show ID before buying bath soap, sugar and coffee cups.

As of right now there is no evidence that any legislative or law enforcement body will regulate household goods after the events in Boston. Let's hope things stay sensible and Department of Homeland Security keeps out of the cookware section.

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