AG says exploding targets illegal; legislators move to legalize them

Less than a week after a state attorney general’s opinion declared commercially available exploding targets used for shooting practice are illegal under current Tennessee law, legislators have introduced a bill to change the law.

Attorney General Herbert Slatery opined state laws generally prohibiting possession and use of explosives have some exceptions, but none of them cover “commercially available binary explosives such as Tannerite,” the brand name for a mixture that makes a target shatter with a loud bang and smoke when struck by a rifle or pistol bullet.

“It is a criminal offense intentionally or knowingly to possess, manufacture, transport, repair, or sell an explosive or an explosive weapon in Tennessee,” says the opinion, requested by state Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon. “The term ‘explosive weapon’ is defined to include ‘any sealed device containing dry ice or other chemically reactive substances for the purposes of causing an explosion by a chemical reaction.’

“The term ‘explosive’ is not defined in Title 39 of the code, but the Tennessee Supreme Court has defined it generally as ‘a chemical-type substance such as dynamite, nitroglycerin, or gunpowder and as ‘a substance or combination of substances which, upon rapid decomposition or combustion, cause an explosion.’

“Unlike federal regulations and some other states’ provisions, Tennessee’s prohibition against the possession or manufacture of explosives does not contain an exception for personal recreational use,” the opinion says. “The statute does contain specific defenses for military or law-enforcement use, for use related to a lawful industrial or commercial enterprise, for dramatic performances and scientific research, and for display at museums. … None of these defenses applies to an individual’s personal or recreational use of an explosive.” (Note: Full opinion HERE.)

The bill filed Thursday by Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, and state Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, would create a new exception to the general ban allowing possession and use of an “exploding target in lawful sporting activity.”

“I’ve never used one, but I’ve always wanted to,” said Niceley, adding he understands the exploding targets are “a lot of fun.”

“The .30-06 bullet that hits the target (and can be legally possessed) is a lot more dangerous than the little target that explodes,” he said.

Niceley said Matheny had the bill drafted and brought it to him to serve as Senate sponsor. Matheny could not be reached for comment.

The measure has the support of the Tennessee Firearms Association, said John Harris, executive director. Harris had sent out an alert to members on the attorney general’s opinion two days before the bill was filed Thursday — deadline day for filing legislation to be considered by the General Assembly this year.

“Tennessee Firearms Association was puzzled by the attorney general’s opinion regarding the use or assembly of recreational explosive targets, such as Tannerite, since these and other non-lethal explosives have been used recreationally in Tennessee for decades,” Harris said in an email. “That historical use does not appear to have triggered reactions from Tennessee or federal law enforcement consistent with the attorney general’s interpretation of existing state law. Consequently, the Tennessee Firearms Association will support legislation that would make it clear that the recreational use or personal manufacture of explosives for any non-lethal purposes, including explosive targets, is not a crime under Tennessee or federal law.”