Silencers are in the news, with all manner of breathless fear mongering coming from various outlets. Why? The Sportsmen’s Heritage Recreational and Enhancement Act of 2017 (SHARE) passed through committee (on a straight party-line vote, naturally) and has been forwarded to the House of Representatives. Attached to it is the Hearing Protection Act, which (if successful) will remove silencers from the National Firearms Act and treat them like regular Title I firearms. Not sure what this means? Don’t worry, I’ll explain.
What’s the big deal?
If you are unfamiliar with the backstory on what silencers are & why they are restricted, David Kopel wrote an excellent article covering the history & politics of silencers. To sum up: Hiram Maxim invented the sound suppressor back in 1909 and marketed it as a “silencer.” Here in the US, they are fairly uncommon & if you don’t have the proper paperwork can send you to prison for a long time.
Wait, what? Yep, that’s right – For some reason that nobody can figure out, Congress decided to include them in the National Firearms Act of 1934, resulting in their being treated the same as machineguns, sawed off shotguns, and hand grenades. Under the NFA, a hollow tube with baffles is considered a Title II firearm & heavily restricted: owning one requires fingerprints, a background check, and a $200 tax stamp. Violations of Title II firearms laws are a federal felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, and a $250,000 fine.
With all these hoops to jump through, and harsh penalties, why do people want silencers anyhow?
Despite their portray in popular media, guns are loud. A single gunshot can be up to 190dB – in comparison, thunder from a nearby storm is around 120dB. Both are enough to cause immediate, permanent hearing damage because the sound is loud enough to kill hearing tissue.
Silencers are the gun equivalent of a car’s muffler – they function by taking the exhaust gases of combustion & slowing their expansion, cooling them before they escape the muzzle. The typical silencer is not particularly complex – it can’t be, because unlike an automobile muffler, the bullet has to travel in a straight line. Crude examples can be found made from converted oil filters, or can be constructed of a simple pipe, washers & steel or copper wool, and a means to attach it to the firearms barrel. In a recent episode of The Walking Dead, Rick Grimes is shown with one made from a Maglite:
Silencers have many benefits besides the obvious noise reduction for the shooter:
- Increased situational awareness. By being able to hear what is going on around you, you are safer. You are able to communicate with others &
- Decreased firearms recoil, which means greater accuracy.
- Less noise pollution in the surrounding area, which is especially important around firing ranges. In some European nations they are considered an essential way to reduce noise pollution & are available without a hassle. Glock makes a disposable model that’s around $150 that is available in various countries.
In all likelihood, if OSHA had existed when silencers were invented, they’d be mandatory equipment today.
What caused this Silencer Showdown?
It is only in recent years that use of silencers in the American firearms community has changed, largely due to three factors: inflation, military acceptance & information sharing.
Inflation: When Maxim invented the silencer, Pistol models sold for $5, rifle versions were $7, or around $125 in 2017 dollars. The National Firearms Act added $200 to that cost, effectively banning them from anyone other than the rich – $200 in 1934 is the equivalent of $4959 in 2017. Thanks to the magic of inflation, a $200 tax stamp no longer is the hurdle it once was, and in the last decade silencer, short barrel rifle, short barrel shotgun & other NFA purchases have exploded. Let’s face it, in 1934 $200 on a $5 item was a big deal; but $200 today? That’s a monthly cell phone bill.
Military use: Silencers have been in military service since WWI, where they were issued to snipers & sharpshooters. In WWII, they were found in various capacities from the Welrod Pistol to the Deslisle Destroyer Carbine to Silenced Sten. Vietnam saw a variant of the S&W M39 called the Mk 22 “Hush Puppy” that was used by SEALs for eliminating guard dogs & sentries, along with Silenced Swedish K “K Guns” used by both Special Forces & CIA personnel.
This continued into the modern era. Well aware of the advantages that silencers provided, military units made them a requirement on weapons systems solicitations; in the mid 90s the Special Operations Peculiar MODification (SOPMOD) kit had a sound suppressor for each rifle. When the Global War on Terror ramped up, Special Operations became even more important & capabilities needed to be filled. The M110 was issued as a designated marksman’s rifle, putting silencers into the hands of riflemen.
Traditional media, Social media & word of mouth: In 2010, there had been a grand total of 285,087 silencers registered since 1934. That would soon change.
The internet allowed firearms enthusiasts to communicate from around the world. As such, those with actual experience using silencers, industry representatives & potential buyers were able join together. Information sharing via sites like AR15.com (est 1997), SilencerTalk, (created in 2006), tactical industry publications, & word of mouth allowed end users to become more educated on silencer effectiveness, how to obtain their own, or in some cases make them with ATF approval. No longer was the NFA a mystery, and a niche market was even created to simplify the process by connecting firearms lawyers with clients.
Social media further spread information, from digital photos taken by service members to companies like Advanced Armament Corporation (AAC), Surefire & Gemtech taking part in discussions. These companies leveraged their knowledge gained from servicing military & law enforcement customers into providing better quality products to both law enforcement & civilian buyers. Detailed specifications allowed comparison shopping. YouTube channels like Hickok45 featured silencer use & others explained the science behind them. Industry leading manufacturers formed the American Suppressor Association in 2014 to help educate & reform silencer laws at both the state & federal level; through their efforts it is now legal to hunt with a silencer equipped firearm in 42 states. Finally, large firearms manufacturers entered the market: Remington acquired AAC, SIG-Sauer created their own silencer division, and just this year S&W bought Gemtech.
By 2015, silencer ownership had exploded. CNN noted the drastic increase in silencer sales:
The number of registered silencers surged 38% from last year to 792,282 in February 2015, according to the most recent figures from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. There were 571,750 licenses in March 2014.
A year later there were 900,000 silencers in circulation. In February 2017 there were 1.3 million and the numbers continue to increase.
Even some people at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives have changed their minds on their being restricted, stating in a whitepaper that:
[T]he reason for their inclusion in the NFA is archaic and historical reluctance to removing them from the NFA should be reevaluated.
The Free Beacon has confirmed that silencers are rarely used in crimes, with roughly 44 instances a year.
“Consistent with this low number of prosecution referrals, silencers are very rarely used in criminal shootings,” Turk wrote. “Given the lack of criminality associated with silencers, it is reasonable to conclude that they should not be viewed as a threat to public safety necessitating [National Firearms Act] classification, and should be considered for reclassification under the [Gun Control Act].”
Even in 2014 the ATF was having a difficult time keeping up with the ever increasing demands for NFA items. Eventually they changed to a 7 day workweek and increased NFA branch personnel nearly threefold in order to try to combat growing delays. Wait times for NFA transfers continued to increase. The existing system wasn’t working, and wasn’t helped by a new Obama-era rule change called 41f that further increased paperwork to be processed – wait times were expected to double. In anticipation of the rules changes, people rushed to get their paperwork in so their purchases would be “grandfathered” – Silencerco reportedly submitted $2,000,000 worth of NFA stamp applications in a single day. If those were all silencers or machineguns, that’s 10,000 applications.
The ATF whitepaper gives an insider’s view:
The wide acceptance of silencers and corresponding changes in state laws have created substantial demand across the country. This surge in demand has caused ATF to have a significant backlog on silencer applications. ATF’s processing time is now approximately 8 months. ATF has devoted substantial resources in attempts to reduce processing times, spending over $1 million annually in overtime and temporary duty expenses, and dedicating over 33 additional full-time and contract positions since 2011 to support NFA processing.
Put it another way: by keeping silencers restricted, it’s having a negative effect on law enforcement, because administration is draining resources. That is money spent on personnel & paperwork and is not spent on criminal investigations.
Things come to a head
Enter the Hearing Protection Act of 2015, which had the objective of changing silencers from Title II weapons, to Title I & treated the same as regular firearms The HPA eventually picked up 82 cosponsors, but was not passed in the 2015-16 session. With the 2016 election under way, it was tabled; Clinton had campaigned on increasing firearms restrictions across the board, and was favored to win.
With Trump’s surprise victory & Republican control of both the Senate & House, there was an opportunity. Donald Trump Jr, an avid hunter, spearheaded efforts to reduce silencer regulations. The Hearing Protection Act was dusted off, reintroduced to the house as HPA 2017. It was then referred to the House Ways and Means Committee, followed by the House Judiciary, where it languished until June, when it was attached to the SHARE Act. SHARE already had strong bipartisan approval and incorporated a number of changes that the firearms community had been seeking for decades.
So let’s talk about the “gun safety” movement & their objections to this bill.
Naturally the possibility of silencer restrictions being eased has caused a panic in the anti-gun movement & media allies. Everytown produced a litany of fear mongering nonsense. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank panicked and vomited forth a massive amount of hyperbole including talk of howitzers & Stinger missiles (which the NRA quickly debunked). The Huffington Post claims deregulation is a ploy of the gun industry in order to combat the “Trump Slump” (which doesn’t exist, but I’ll address that in another article).
Rather than address each article, let’s talk about…
Common Myths Surrounding Silencers
Myth #1: Silencers completely eliminate the sound of a gunshot!
Despite their portrayal in movies & television, silencers do not reduce a gunshot to a kitten sneezing. In fact:
- a rifle with a silencer is still as loud as the operations deck of an aircraft carrier;
- a pistol with a silencer is as loud as a jackhammer.
Even the CEO of ShotSpotter, a system used to detect gunfire in several cities, states that the Shotspotter system can still detect firearms equipped with silencers.
“In regard to gun silencers, it is more accurate to call them suppressors, as they suppress the impulsive sound of gunfire, not wholly eliminate it,” said Ralph Clark, the chief executive of ShotSpotter. “We have successfully if not inadvertently detected confirmed suppressed gunfire within our existing deployments. Although we have not formally tested the theoretical impact to our system, we intend to do some targeted testing in the near future. We believe we will have various options ranging from increasing our sensor array density to developing software/firmware to address the detection of suppressed gunfire if it were to become a widespread issue.”
Despite what some may claim, a silencer will not make a mass shooter more deadly, or hunter less safe.
Myth #2: Restricting them has kept them out of the hands of criminals!
This is a great example of correlation not equaling causation, or the Simpsons example of the tiger-repellent rock. Strict silencer laws have not, in fact, kept them out of the hands of criminals; rather their use is just not given much media play because criminals breaking the law with heavily restricted items goes against the narrative. Examples:
Over a half dozen examples in the last two years, with many more probably not even reported on.
So why aren’t criminals using silencers? Probably because most criminals use small, concealable handguns and adding 9-12″ to the barrel makes them much more difficult to tuck into a belt.
Myth #3: People don’t need silencers, they can just wear earplugs!
First, let’s start with the research: The CDC did a study in 2011 titled, “Noise and Lead Exposures at an Outdoor Firing Range ─ California”. In it, they stated:
The only potentially effective noise control method to reduce students’ or instructors’ noise exposure from gunfire is through the use of noise suppressors that can be attached to the end of the gun barrel.
The common sense approach to a loud noise is to muffle the item causing it, not to expect everyone in the area to be equipped with ear protection. It’s only when that is not possible that additional hearing protection is suggested, which is why cars have mufflers instead of expecting drivers & passengers to wear ear plugs.
Second, when carrying a firearm for self defense, it is not possible or practical to wear ear plugs or muffs at all times. There are over 16 million people with concealed carry permits in the United States, and unknown numbers of people who concealed carry in the 13 states with Constitutional Carry. Each one runs the risk of permanent hearing loss should they be forced to defend themselves.
In addition, wearing ear plugs or muffs reduces safety, not increases it. With hearing protection on, all sound is reduced, not just the gunshot, resulting in a loss of situational awareness:
- Hunters cannot hear other people in the woods.
- A homeowner inside their house will not be able to effectively hear an intruder’s movements – or police commands if they make entry.
- Students receiving instruction have to learn to overcome the blast & recoil, rather than concentrating on form & control.
- The areas surrounding firing ranges have increased levels of noise pollution.
Myth #4: If silencers are easier to get, there will be more criminals using silencers!
While I already addressed this partially with Myth #1 & how guns are still loud even with a silencer attached, this argument really requires a leap in logic to believe.
First, seized firearms figures show that most criminals use small & inexpensive handguns for crime. The Trace was kind enough to provide data from Chicago PD which had inexpensive models from Ruger, Hi-Point, & other manufacturers dominating. A stickup artist is not going to add 9-12″ of suppressor to the barrel of their firearm making it harder to conceal… not to mention doubling or tripling the price.
Second, there were also huge numbers of revolvers present, which cannot be effectively silenced due to the gap between the cylinder & the barrel. This throws additional cold water on potential criminal silencer use.
Silencers are a Public Health issue
Obviously the medical community must have something to say about this, right?
Surprise! They’ve been refusing to comment at all. The silence of medical groups is something that has not gone unnoticed by the firearms community. You’d think that decriminalizing a device that will prevent medical injury would be a no-brainer for medical professionals, but:
[T]he American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians, American College of Surgeons, and the American Academy of Pediatrics not only refuse to support doing away with the outdated restrictions. They won’t even promote the use of suppressors as a valuable public health solution.
Even the group representing ear doctors, the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, has decided officially to refuse their support of both this hearing-saving tool and the legislation that would make it widely available to their patients.
Usually eager to try to force further gun control under the guise of “Public Health” the medical community has been strangely quiet. There are no shortage of articles in medical journals advocating for stricter firearms laws, from background checks to “safe storage” to banning assault weapons, none of which have a proven track record of success at effecting, never mind reducing harm. Yet when it comes to easing access to something that has empirically measurable, demonstrated effectiveness at preventing injury, they have nothing to say.
This, right here, reveals just how bankrupt the “gun safety” movement is.