The federal government has strictly limited the sale of firearm silencers for as long as James Bond and big-screen gangsters have used them to discreetly shoot enemies between the eyes.
Now the gun industry, which for decades has complained about the restrictions, is pursuing new legislation to make silencers easier to buy, and a key backer is Donald Trump Jr., an avid hunter and the oldest son of the president-elect, who campaigned as a friend of the gun industry.
The legislation stalled in Congress last year. But with Republicans in charge of the House and Senate and the elder Trump moving into the White House, gun rights advocates are excited about its prospects this year.
They hope to position the bill the same way this time — not as a Second Amendment issue, but as a public-health effort to safeguard the eardrums of the nation’s 55 million gun owners. They even named it the Hearing Protection Act. It would end treating silencers as the same category as machine guns and grenades, thus eliminating a $200 tax and a nine-month approval process.
“It’s about safety,” Trump Jr. explained in a September video interview with the founder of SilencerCo, a Utah silencer manufacturer. “It’s a health issue, frankly.”
Violence prevention advocates are outraged that the industry is trying to ease silencer restrictions by linking the issue to the eardrums of gun owners. They argue the legislation will make it easier for criminals and potential mass shooters to obtain devices to conceal attacks.
“They want the general public to think it’s about hearing aids or something,” said Kristen Rand, the legislative director of the Violence Policy Center. “It’s both a silly and smart way to do it, I guess. But when the general public finds out what’s really happening, there will be outrage.”
The silencer industry and gun rights groups say critics are vastly overstating the dangers, arguing that Hollywood has created an unrealistic image of silencers, which they prefer to call “suppressors.” They cite studies showing that silencers reduce the decibel level of a gunshot from a dangerous 165 to about 135 — the sound of a jackhammer — and that they are rarely used in crimes.
But gun-control activists say silencers are getting quieter, particularly in combination with subsonic ammunition, which is less lethal but still damaging. They point to videos on YouTube in which silencers make high-powered rifles have “no more sound than a pellet gun,” according to one demonstrator showing off a silenced semiautomatic .22LR.
Proponents say that’s not a good way to judge the sound.
“You’re still going to hear the gunfire from far away,” said Knox Williams, president of the American Suppressor Association. “These things are still incredibly loud.”
Even with the restrictions, silencers have become one of the fastest-growing segments of the gun industry, which pushed accessories as gun sales level off. In 2010, there were 285,087 registered silencers. Last year: 902,085.
Rep. Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican who regularly shoots with silencers, introduced the Hearing Protection Act in the House in 2015. A companion bill in the Senate was championed by Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho).
Though the bill never made it to committee hearings, it generated tremendous interest, becoming the third most-viewed piece of legislation on Congress’s website last year. (Top was the Democrat-led Assault Weapons Ban of 2015.)
Salmon recently retired, and it’s not clear yet who will reintroduce the measure. The bill had 82 co-sponsors — all but two of them Republicans.
Easing the restrictions could have a profound public-health impact, champions of the legislation say.
Hunters often shoot without hearing protection so they can hear prey moving. Many recreational shooters don’t like wearing ear covers, which can be heavy and hot and in gun ranges lead to many conversations ending with, “I can’t hear you.”
Silencers are also marketed as must-have attachments for high-powered rifles — a tactical necessity that reduces recoil, thus improving aim.
“Quiet guns are easier to shoot,” the National Rifle Association says in its American Rifleman magazine. “Try it.”
Silencers were invented in 1908 by Hiram Percy Maxim, a graduate of MIT whose father invented the first fully automatic machine gun. The younger Maxim had a knack for reducing loud noises; he also contributed to the development of the automobile muffler.
“I have always loved to shoot, but I never thoroughly enjoyed it when I knew that the noise was annoying other people,” he said late in life. “It occurred to me one day that there was no need for the noise. Why not do away with it and shoot quietly?”
Maxim solved the problem in the bathtub. He noticed that the water swirled silently down the drain. What if the gases produced from firing a bullet could swirl that way, too? So Maxim put what he called “a whirling tube” on the end of a rifle. It successfully muffled the sound of the gunfire. Soon, the whirling tube was U.S. Patent No. 958,935, titled “Silent Firearm.”
In the 1930s, to curtail gang violence, Congress passed the National Firearms Act, putting restrictions and special taxes on machine guns and other high-powered weapons. Though they hadn’t been used frequently in crimes, silencers were included anyway, reportedly out of concern that poachers would use them to steal food during the Great Depression.
“It’s a very strange tale,” said Stephen Halbrook, a Virginia gun rights attorney who recently published a law review article about the history of silencers. “If you think about it, if [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] had been around then, they probably would have required people use these things.”
Though silencers are now legal in 42 states, industry officials say the onerous and expensive task of buying them keeps gun owners, particularly hunters, from their preferred method of protecting their hearing.
They frequently point out that Britain, with some of the strictest gun laws in the world, has no restrictions on silencers for many types of firearms.
“There isn’t this negative stigma because of Hollywood that has suppressed — pun intended — the use of suppressors in this country,” said Josh Waldron, the founder of SilencerCo, the Utah manufacturer.
Waldron started his company in 2008 after a career in photography, aiming to educate shooters about the benefits of silencers and to essentially hold buyers’ hands through the purchasing process. He sells about 18,000 silencers a month.
“I want to create an environment where people understand the real purpose of these devices and that people aren’t using them for nefarious acts,” he said.
Silencer use in crimes is likely to be the focus of the legislative debate later this year.
Gun rights proponents and the silencer industry cite a study showing that in California, from 1995 to 2005, silencers appeared to be used for criminal purposes only 153 times in federal cases.
“Suppressed firearms are clearly not the choice of criminals,” according to a briefing paper by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which is based in Newtown, Conn., and represents gun manufacturers. “The fears and concerns about suppressor ownership and use are unfounded and have not been seen in the over 100-year history of suppressors.”
Gun-control advocates contend that serious crimes are being committed with silencers on guns. Former police officer Christopher Dorner used silencers on an AR-15 and a 9mm handgun during two-day rampage in Los Angeles in 2013.
A serial killer in Vermont used a silencer in the killing of at least one of his 11 victims.
And the planner of a disrupted mass shooting targeting a Masonic temple in Milwaukee last year was charged with possessing a silencer, in addition to other weapons charges.
“They wanted these things so they could kill quietly,” said Rand, of the Violence Policy Center. “The industry wants to make silencers less scary, but they can’t.”
Gun owners such as Trump Jr. can’t understand why people like Rand don’t get it.
In the video, after he’s shown shooting several guns with silencers, Trump Jr. says they can help with getting “little kids into the game.”
“It’s just a great instrument,” he says. “There’s nothing bad about it at all.”