How Silencers Became the Next Gun Control Fight

 In Politics

When gunfire rang out over the Route 91 Harvest festival Sunday night in Las Vegas, the rapid, sustained tat-tat-tat-tat was clearly audible, even over the live music booming from the stage. Some attendees initially mistook the sound for fireworks, a pyrotechnic finale to the concert. But as bodies began to fall, the terrible reality was soon clear: The thousands gathered that night on the Strip were under attack, in what would become (for the time being) the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

Concertgoers huddled under whatever shelter they could find—behind vehicles and flimsy fences, inside a caterer’s freezer, behind concession stands—some shielding loved ones with their own bodies. They couldn’t see the gunman in his perch on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel, but they could hear the sharp report of his rifle. In amateur video captured from the crowd, the camera pans up to the Mandalay Bay, across the street from the outdoor concert venue. A few men and women can also be seen pointing up toward the source of the shooting. One man, still holding an oversized can of Bud Light, flashes his middle finger up at the hotel before ducking for cover. Ben Sweeney, a hotel guest on a business trip, told the Washington Post that the resounding gunfire seemed to have been coming from the adjacent room. (He wasn’t far off in that estimation—the gunman was two floors above Sweeney and one room over.)

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In an interview with CNN, Las Vegas Undersheriff Kevin McMahill said that officers on the ground “could actually hear where the rounds were coming from,” and coordinated their response accordingly. (A fire alarm, triggered by smoke from the gunfire, further helped police to pinpoint the specific room where the gunman was located.)

This latest mass shooting—in which the sounds of gunfire played an important role for survivors and police—coincides with an effort in Congress to deregulate gun silencers, devices that reduce the volume of a gunshot by capturing and dispersing hot gas as it leaves the muzzle of a firearm. Under longstanding law, silencers are only sold by specially licensed dealers and are subject to more rigorous background checks, longer waits and steeper federal taxes than typical gun sales. Lobbyists for the firearms industry, affiliated with both the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, have argued that making guns quieter is a simple matter of public health. Quieter guns are less likely to cause hearing damage.

But gun violence prevention advocates from groups including the Violence Policy Center and Brady Center have challenged those safety claims and pointed to another motive for the push to deregulate silencers—profit. There are more guns than people in the United States, and recent slumps in gun sales might be a sign that supply is outstripping demand. For consumers who feel they already own enough guns, a silencer might be a more likely purchase—especially if Congress eliminates the $200 tax and months-long wait to acquire one. Senator Chris Murphy, who represents the Newtown community still devastated by a mass shooting in 2012, articulates that calculus in a recent Huffington Post video. “The gun industry will do better,” Murphy says, “but lives will be lost.”

The first commercial silencer was patented in 1909, and they were still relatively novel in 1934, when Congress enacted the regulations still in effect today. Together with fully automatic machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, and some other weapons, silencers were restricted under the 1934 National Firearms Act, which was written with the participation and approval of the NRA. The legislation was a response to the shocking violence of gangland massacres, in an era where criminals often outgunned police.

A century later, silencers are making a comeback, part of a growing market of “tactical” equipment popular with consumers. Consumer interest in tactical equipment seems largely motivated by aesthetics, rather than actual application. For example, several gun manufacturers now offer real guns with fake silencers, such as this .22 caliber GSG handgun for sale in Utah or this Uzi from a Texas online gun retailer. (These faux suppressors don’t affect the volume of gunfire at all, but some gun buyers think they look cool.) The tactical weapons industry has been flexing its political muscle recently, fighting restrictions on “armor piercing” ammunition and high capacity magazines. According to FEC filings, a Texas based retailer called the Silencer Shop contributed $10,000 to Team Ryan in November, a political action committee associated with House Speaker Paul Ryan. David Matheny, who owns the Silencer Shop, also made an individual $10,000 contribution to the PAC.

In June, Congress was set to consider a bill to eliminate stringent regulations on silencers, but postponed hearings after a shooting spree at a baseball practice left Rep. Steve Scalise and three others wounded. Discussion of that legislation was expected to resume this week, but congressional leaders told Politico that Sunday’s shooting might further slow the progress of the bill.

The prospect that unregulated gun silencers might soon be sold at any sporting goods store or Wal-Mart, though, remains entirely plausible. The Hearing Protection Act has 165 sponsors, including four Democrats. And it’s all but certain that President Donald Trump would sign the bill if it reaches his desk—the legislation is backed by the NRA, which spent more than $30 million in support of Trump’s election. After trying out several silencers produced by Utah-based SilencerCo, the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., said the quieter shooting experience might make guns less intimidating for kids. “There’s nothing bad about it at all,” the younger Trump said in a video.

The NRA is quick to challenge the common misperception that silencers make firearms whisper quiet. Indeed, many gun rights advocates object even to the term “silencer” (preferring “suppressor”), because guns equipped with such a device are not actually silent. In a feat of impressive self-contradiction, the NRA’s lobbying arm published an article last week explaining that guns with silencers are as loud and conspicuous as jackhammers, but also gentle on the ears. Both points are reiterated by Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership in a position paper endorsing easier access to silencers. (The gist: guns are noisy.) The term “silencer,” though, is used by various law enforcement agencies, appears in state and federal legislation, and is commonly used by retailers and manufacturers of these devices. Inventor Hiram Maxim called his original design a silencer.

It’s true that, depending on the caliber and type of ammunition, as well as the design of the silencer, even a suppressed firearm can be painfully loud. Without the addition of grease or gel (which can further dampen sound), a quality suppressor might reduce the sound of a gunshot by about 40 decibels. For a large hunting rifle, the shooter would still need to wear earplugs or earmuffs or risk hearing loss. Smaller caliber weapons using lower-velocity ammunition can produce a dramatic drop in volume when a silencer is attached. In a video published by the news website, shooter Joe Songer demonstrates the range of volume one rifle can produce with various types of ammunition and a suppressor. With low velocity ammunition, the gun is astonishingly quiet. “Basically, all you hear is the bolt cycling in the gun,” Songer says. “You don’t hear the crack.”

Jim Pasco, who heads the Fraternal Order of Police, told Politico in September that gun silencers are not “a law enforcement problem,” which is why he supported the Congressional bill that would make them easier to obtain. But the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence argues that the reason silencers are seldom used in crime is precisely because they have been effectively regulated for more than 80 years. The partnership, which includes the Police Foundation, Major Cities Chiefs Association and six other police groups, warns that “the widespread and uncontrolled distribution of silencers to an unwary civilian population, combined with the sheer number of firearms freely available in America, is a step in the wrong direction and will result in tragedy, including violence directed at police officers that will be difficult or impossible to investigate effectively.”

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