November 8, 2009

Everyone a Bomb Builder

Justin Katz

I've got mixed feelings about this odd little story out of Tiverton:

James R. Lapre, 24, of 320 Hurst Lane, Tiverton, was charged with disorderly conduct and with threatening to place a bomb in a public place (a felony) after police took him into custody, then searched his residence and discovered makeshift bomb-making materials.

Police said that a co-worker Mr. Lapre had invited to his home said he saw there a section of PVC pipe, nails, and other materials that he lifted and described as heavy.

Police said that when the co-worker asked what the pipe and materials were for, Mr. Lapre told him that he was going to leave the bomb at their boss's business if he was laid off. The co-worker told the employer, who reported the matter to Tiverton police.

My first reaction is to think of Arlo Guthrie's line about "using up all kinds of cop equipment that they had hanging around the police officer's station" in "Alice's Restaurant":

Armed with a search warrant, Tiverton police officers and detectives, along with representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), Rhode Island State Police, the Rhode Island Fire Marshall's office, the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency (RIEMA), and tactical and bomb squad units, surrounded Mr. Lapre's Hurst Lane residence.

More seriously, though, the incident seems to reside along a fine line of civil liberties. Consider this excellent comment from the first link above:

What you will need to make a bomb:
1. PVC Pipe
2. Nails
3. Items that when lifted can be described as heavy

What combination of legally purchased items are required in order for one to be arrested for credibly building a bomb? And should bomb-building be a criminal offense, anyway, given the Second Amendment? Working in construction, I've probably got everything I'd need to put together a makeshift bomb, if I cared to learn how to combine them for that purpose; does that mean that an army of acronyms could bang down my door if I make an off-hand quip that somebody ought to "blow up" this or that?

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Let me begine with my own experiene. As kids (12 or 13) many of my friends, and I, made bombs. The ingredient were simple. Some times it was railroad flares "borrowed" from the train station. Sometimes just kitchen match heads stuffed in a co2 cartridge and fused with the fuse supplied with model "jet engines". If it was a really slow day and supplies were tight, flour would do. We had access to gunpowder, but never seemed to use it. Thanks to Popular Mechanics, and Popular Science, we knew about shaped charges.

I am reminded of an incident in Cambridge, MA from about 15 years ago. Kids playing in someone's yard looked through the window and saw several guns. They reported it to the police. The forces of the law descended on the house en masse. For a weekend the papers were full of reports about a weapons cache and a "disappearing owner". In the end, it turned out the "disappearing owner" was away with the National Guard and all of the rifles were properly recorded with the police and that he was properly licensed.

For all of that, I am not sure that the incident described by Justin is so awful. An apparently reasonable citizen was shown what appeared to be a bomb and its owner offered an inchoate plan to use it against a known person. What should that citizen have done? If the owner had not offered up a plan to use it, I would not regard the ownership of the "bomb" to be any more serious than owning a "spud gun" (I have friends with what would have to be described as potato cannons). The explosive for that is as simple as hair spray, Estee Lauder is preferred.

I do wonder why a policeman could not have "had a talk" with him. When armies are assembled, you will be told it is for the safety of the officers. I suspect that it is sometimes a grab of TV "face time".

Posted by: Warrington Faust at November 8, 2009 10:08 AM

Another comment. I once dated the widow of an ATF agent (he had died under very mysterious circumstances while serving as a reserve officer in Saudi Arabia. He had a serious amount of cash on him).

When he died, he left her with a substantial cache of machine guns, other weapons and a serious amount of explosives. She told me that they had celebrated the 4th of July with artillery simulators.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Posted by: Warrington Faust at November 8, 2009 10:20 AM

Knowing that I am a big 2nd Amendment advocate (although I reject the quasi-religious notion that our rights are bestowed unto us by words on a piece of paper), people often ask me "where the line is" with respect to the 2nd Amendment. The implication being that any line drawn in the sand as to which arms are allowed and which are prohibited will be somewhat arbitrary or debatable, so any line government chooses for us is okay.

For me, the "line," if one insists on calling it that, is private ownership of nuclear weapons, although I'd call it more like a single exception to a broad right. Everything else should be fair game. This is due to the fundamentally different nature of nuclear weapons, their destabilizing effect on their surroundings, and their limited and unfocused defensive value. Some might disagree with me, but I don't think the difference between conventional arms and nuclear arms is arbitrary.

People scream, "You would let private citizens own rocket launchers? Grenades? Tanks?"

Sure. Why not? All of those items would be proper in a guerrilla war against an oppressive government, the military owns such things and nobody bats an eye about the potential of some rogue platoon or soldier misusing them (even after massacres like the recent one at Ft. Hood), and many US citizens peacefully own such items today without using them on anybody else, despite laws prohibiting them.

"What if somebody uses one though?" Well, obviously there are very few individuals out there who would be nuts enough to do that without good cause, otherwise we'd see a lot more massacres going on right now, but even if some lunatic did get a hold of one and used it, they could only do it once, because everyone else would be armed too and absent nuclear weapons, there is no way one person could succeed against the millions that would instantly turn against him if he unjustifiably used such a weapon. The liberty interest is simply too strong to institute universal bans on these types of conventional arms out of the fear of what a few people "might" do with them (as if passing a law will stop such people from owning or using them anyway).

It is important to note that a credible threat itself can be a form of harm, due to the reasonable apprehension and disruption it will cause to another individual. Endangering the lives of others by stockpiling explosives in a crowded area or some such thing could also be rationally considered a form of harm for the same reason, even if nobody is actually hurt or killed. Of course with almost any type of gun or war vehicle, this is not a significant problem, since they are not inherently dangerous, as explosives are. No gun is going to aim itself and pull its own trigger, but an explosive could certainly go off for any number of reasons absent independent human input.

In this particular story, certainly a raid of the man's home was not proportional to his threat (which could easily have been a joke, although that will be fact-dependent). It probably could have been investigated and resolved nonviolently, but the government tends to push its power to the stretching point and has no problem using violence against its citizens whenever it gets the chance, especially when citizens own certain prohibited plants or other arbitrary items, which is why I am against all possession laws since they are all inherently victimless (with the one exception of nuclear arms, discussed above).

How does one even defend oneself, as a practical matter, in court against a possession charge anyway? If there is a way, I have yet to hear it. Maybe 99% of the people are "guilty," but anyone who thinks the 1% who don't actually own the item in question or had it planted on them by a neighbor or police will be summarily lumped in with the rest and hauled off to prison is kidding himself.

Posted by: Dan at November 8, 2009 11:04 AM

Well, this is a very interesting incident. Was Mr. Lapre the real thing or just a joker who is now paying the price for an off-hand and, in this day and age, really stupid comment?

On the one hand, if a person seriously intended, under certain conditions, to bomb his (former) place of employment, he would have to be nuts to casually inform a (current) co-worker of his arrangements. Then again, anyone who does set off a bomb (outside a war zone) is insane on some level. On the third hand, such criminally deranged people are usually just sane enough to keep their mouth shut so as not to foil their own plot.

The absence, in this case, of trigger/explosive devices seems to tilt towards the explanation of bad joker.

Posted by: Monique at November 8, 2009 11:55 AM

"other materials that he lifted and described as heavy."


Pet food?


Potting soil?


Posted by: Monique at November 8, 2009 12:14 PM

Monique, Didn't realize you had three hands.:-)

Posted by: bobc at November 8, 2009 1:53 PM

I think the line is drawn when a reasonable threat is made. The combination of having the materials coupled with the statement that this person planned to use the materials to make a bomb and injure others led to a public safety concern. I do not advocate the government coming into people's homes and checking to see if they have materials that could possibly be combined in a dangerous way. (How many of us have both bleach and ammonia in our houses right now?) However, when someone says that they intend to hurt other people and have the obvious means to do so, then I think it makes sense to alert others to this threat. If I were in the same situation, I would say something as well. Perhaps it was just a really bad joke, but I think the evidence presented to the co-worker was enough to red flag this man as a viable threat to others. I don't think this is an example of the government intruding on an individual's liberty, but rather a matter of maintaining public safety within reasonable bounds.

Posted by: Tabetha at November 8, 2009 5:24 PM

It has many of the ear marks of a bad joke, but I cannot blame the guy who reported it (at the risk of finding a bomb in his own house).

I think the response was probably excessive.

Ask yourself what you would do if you were admiring a friend's unloaded shotgun and he told you he had plans to use it on his ex-wife? I suppose much depends on the manner in which it is said.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at November 8, 2009 5:35 PM

"I suppose much depends on the manner in which it is said."

Aboslutely! I think it comes down to whether or not you believe there is a credible risk to other people.

Posted by: Tabetha at November 8, 2009 5:37 PM
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