Should Congress Finally Deregulate “Silencers” in 2017?

There are a lot of myths about firearm suppressors, mostly created by movies and the name “silencer” itself.  (The name “Silencer” was used as a catchy – yet somewhat misleading – trade name by the inventor of the modern suppressor, Hiram Percy Maxim.)

Contrary to countless movie scenes, the use of a suppressor on a firearm does not reduce the report of the gun to a barely-audible “pffft.”  Rather, a modern suppressor reduces the noise of a firearm from the area of 160 decibels (“dB”) to something around 130 dB.

And 130 dB is still loud.  By comparison,  the sound of a jackhammer at a distance of fifty feet is approximately 95dB.  A typical motorcycle or snowmobile generates about 100 dB and a loud rock concert is often approximately 115 dB.  As this demonstrates, a suppressed firearm is certainly not “silent,” although depending on a variety of factors, including caliber and barrel length, a suppressor may reduce the sound of a firearm to a noise level that is “hearing-safe” for short intervals.  (However, it is noteworthy that OSHA regulations allow unprotected exposure to only 90 dB for an eight-hour day and 115 dB for a fifteen-minute interval.)

Despite the fact that they do not actually function as “silencers,” modern suppressors have experienced a dramatic increase in popularity in recent years. From 2014 to 2015, applications to the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for the manufacture or purchase of suppressors increased by thirty-nine percent.   According to a BATFE report just released this year, there are now over 900,000 suppressors registered in the United States, with 28,395 of those being located in Indiana.

The increase in the popularity of suppressors in Indiana can be attributed, at least in part, to the Indiana General Assembly’s legalization of the use of suppressors for hunting in 2013.  In addition, more and more firearm owners are realizing the benefits of using suppressors – which range from simply being a good neighbor to reducing the shooter’s own exposure to the loud and potentially dangerous sounds of gunfire.

However, the manner in which the federal government regulates suppressors makes ownership costly, time-consuming and inconvenient. Following concerns about post-Prohibition gangland violence – which was sensationalized in the press and by Hollywood – Congress passed the National Firearms Act of 1934.  The NFA strictly regulates the ownership or transfer of certain “firearms,” including fully-automatic machineguns, short-barreled rifles (with barrels under 16″), short-barreled shotguns (with barrels under 18″), “destructive devices,” including bombs and grenades and “any other weapons,” a catch-all category that primarily involves firearms that can be concealed on the body, such as a “pen gun.”  And for reasons that are not historically clear, the NFA also covers suppressors – perhaps because in 1934 Congress was operating under the mistaken perception that suppressors were often used in crimes, although there is absolutely no data to support such a belief, as discussed below.

Firearms and other devices regulated by the NFA are not banned, per se; rather, they can only be manufactured, transferred or possessed after applying for and receiving permission from the BATFE.  The NFA application process generally requires the payment of a $200 tax and an additional background check to be performed on the applicant.  And the processing time for NFA applications has dramatically increased in recent years with the increase in volume of applications received by BATFE, with applications often taking several months to be approved.

In October of 2015, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives, H.R. 3799, the Hearing Protection Act of 2015, which would remove suppressors from the scope of the National Firearms Act of 1934.   That bill is still in a subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee – the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations.  If passed and signed into law, the effect of the Hearing Protection Act would be to simply remove the requirement for a purchaser of a suppressor to pay the $200 tax to the government and the acquisition of a suppressor would be treated like the purchase of any other “firearm.”  (Federal law specifically defines “firearm” to include “firearm mufflers or firearm silencers.”)  As a result, a person wishing to buy a suppressor would still have to fill out an application to purchase a firearm, show identification, and go through a background check with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (“NICS”) operated by the FBI.  However, passing the NICS check would allow a person to walk out of the gun store with a suppressor – instead of going through the long and expensive NFA application process.

Congress should pass the Hearing Protection Act, because it has become abundantly clear that suppressors should not be regulated under the NFA.  Initially, suppressors are simply not used in crimes.  In one study looking at the criminal use of suppressors in California and nation-wide between 1995 and 2005, the researcher found a total of only fifteen cases that involved the actual use of a suppressor in the commission of a crime.  Less than 0.1% of homicides prosecuted in federal court,  0.00006% of felonies in California and a mere 0.1% of armed robberies involved the use of a suppressor.

Contrasted against the infinitismally low number of crimes committed with suppressors, there are dramatic benefits for sportsman, hunters and homeowners to use a suppressor while using a firearm.  For hunters, hunting with a suppressor is now legal to use while hunting in forty states and hunters often are relunctant to use hearing protection that prevents them from being able to hear other sounds in their environment – including approaching animals.  And anyone who fires a gun should be allowed the unrestricted use of a device that safeguards against damage to the ears and resulting hearing loss.

For all these reasons, there is every reason for Congress to pass the Hearing Protection Act of 2015 and for incoming President Trump to sign it into law early in 2017.  The result would not be the total deregulation of suppressors – suppressors would continue to be treated like all other non-NFA “firearms” – but a great many more Americans could realize the benefits and protections provided by their use and increased availability.