Why a Suppressor is Not a Silencer



Print Friendly and PDF

An Opinion By William J. Ellis, Guest Contributor. September 18th, 2017

1: How Semantics Are Defeating Sensible Gun Legislation

The Hearing Protection Act of 2017 is still awaiting a hearing in Congress. (Editor's note: We since have on the table the "Sportsmen's Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act", which seeks to incorporate suppressors - see item 9/12/17). The bill seeks to lift the restrictions placed on the use of suppressors put in place by the National Firearms Act of 1934. This earlier act requires additional, lengthy background checks on those who would like to buy a suppressor, and imposes a $200 tax on their sale. It also proposes that suppressors no longer be counted as equivalent to handguns, as per the Gun Control Act of 1968, lifting the requirement for a NICS check during the purchase of suppressors.

Though the bill is eminently sensible, debate about it has been characterized by a stunning level of ignorance by those who oppose it. It seems that some Democrats, in particular, have never actually used a suppressor, but are nevertheless absolutely sure that they oppose them.

If you’re reading this, I’m betting that you’ve used a “silencer”, and what I am about to say will not be news to you. However, in case there are any liberals reading, let me enlighten you: guns fitted with suppressors are still incredibly loud.

The debate about the bill is sadly an example of one of the long-standing problems about discussions of Second Amendment rights in the US. Those who actually use guns on a daily basis, and know how they work, argue reasonably that certain restrictions should be relaxed. Those who vehemently oppose gun rights, having never used a gun in their life, are motivated by imaginary dangers and mistaken beliefs. For the benefit of this latter group, let’s take a short history class.

2: Suppressors vs. “Silencers”

It is true that suppressors, when they were invented back in 1909, were originally marketed as “silencers”. However, this was always an inflated claim, akin to calling a flannel shirt an “arctic coat”. As anyone who has ever used one knows, guns fitted with a suppressor are loud. As loud, in fact, as a pneumatic drill hitting concrete, which I’m sure no-one has trouble hearing, even Democrats.

In this area, though, it seems that many people have mistaken advertising claims for reality. In the imaginations of some opposing the bill, no doubt informed by Dick Tracy and James Bond movies, suppressors allow would-be shooters to kill people silently. They argue, incredibly, that allowing people to buy “silencers” would increase the rate of school shootings, a belief which completely ignores the fact that hand guns fitted with suppressors can no longer be concealed, and rifles fitted with the same become all but unusable in tight spaces.

Not only does this mistaken belief make sensible legislation on suppressors impossible, it also leads to many people overlooking the more mundane dangers of not using a suppressor. At the moment, the cost and extra bureaucracy involved in purchasing a silencer deters many people from getting one. This is a shame, because it means that many people have a difficult choice to make — wear ear protection, and potentially be unable to hear anything else around them, or don’t, and risk hearing damage.

That’s why the bill is called the Hearing Protection Act, after all.

3: Skewed Statistics

On the better-informed side of the debate, the gun control group Americans For Responsible Solutions continue to selectively push statistics that make it appear that the current restrictions are not burdensome. According to this group, the rapid rise in sales of suppressors in recent years proves that the $200 tax stamp is not a big problem for gun owners.

I don’t know about you, but $200 on top of the cost of a suppressor sounds like a lot to me. In a lot of cases, this tax represents 50-100% of the price of the item, a huge level of taxation in anyone’s book. And while the Washington consultants who oppose the bill might be able to find $200 down the back of their sofa, for the majority of Americans it represents a significant burden.

Especially because, remember, this is a tax on a safety device. I’m still mystified that this point is not raised more regularly, because to my mind it seems incredible that an item designed to protect the user is taxed.

In addition to this monetary burden, the bureaucracy currently involved in getting a suppressor deters many shooters from investing in a device that could save their hearing. Under current legislation, prospective suppressor owners must go through a lengthy application process which involves them providing personal information, a passport photo, and also giving their fingerprints. Many, rightly, are reticent to provide such details for inclusion on a federal database.

And, even when responsible gun owners jump through all these hoops, ATF approval to buy a suppressor can still take up to a year. In this context, then, it is not surprising that many hunters continue to use dangerously loud guns.

4: The Actual Numbers

Despite such incredible claims that, as Kristen Rand of VPC said in a press release dated June 27, “silencers are military-bred accessories that make it easier for criminals to take innocent lives and threaten law enforcement. Existing federal law has kept crimes committed with silencer-equipped firearms rare,” the number of crimes committed with suppressors is incredibly low.

Not to labor the point, but this will not be a surprise to anyone who has ever actually used one. If you’re going to commit a crime with your weapon, fitting a suppressor will actually make this much more difficult. As Jeremy Mallette, social media director for Silencer Shop in Austin, told guns.com back in August, suppressors add considerable length to any firearm – making concealment impossible – and block the shooter’s front sight picture. “You can’t conceal a handgun anymore with one on and on a rifle, it would make the rifle very unwieldy,” he said. “That’s my biggest retort. (Some people) think silencers would be useful in these shootings and that’s just not the case.”

But let’s look at the numbers, for the sake of balance. Knox Williams, president and executive director for the American Suppressor Association, told guns.com that of the 1.3 million suppressors in circulation, his group can only fund 16 instances of criminal use since 2011. “That translates to the misuse of a glaringly low percentage of suppressors in circulation — roughly 0.000012308 percent,” he said.

That’s pretty low.

5: The Case For Sensible Reform

I’m a reasonable guy, and realize that some types of weapons and accessories need to be restricted. However, when it comes to suppressors I have repeatedly tried and failed to see why such heavy restrictions are in place. It seems to me that the current legislation — which, remember, is from 1934 — is completely out of date. Nobody is going to buy a suppressor in order to commit a crime with their weapon.

The Hearing Protection Act proposes to remove suppressors from the NFA process, but leave GCA mandates in place. While the NFA claim that this could lead to an increase in crime using suppressors, in reality I think they fear a reduction in their own power rather than a preposterous increase in crime.

And whilst I can accept that a lot of the American public have no need nor desire to own firearms, and that they are somewhat ignorant as a result of this, I cannot forgive such ignorance when it comes to federal agencies. The NFA knows damn well that “silencers” are used in a vanishingly small number of crimes, but still seems content to continue to further myths about this fact.

The real danger here, of course, is that when the Bill finally gets a hearing, Congress will focus on the rare but dramatic instances where suppressors have been used in shootings, and ignore the everyday damage that not using them does to the hearing of thousands of shooters across the country.


Back to Top