Republicans Introduce Bill to Reform Silencer Laws to Both Houses of Congress

Republicans in the House of Representatives and the Senate introduced legislation this week to reform the laws that govern firearm silencers.

The twin bills, both named the Hearing Protection Act, were introduced by Reps. Jeff Duncan (R., S.C) and John Carter (R., Texas) in the House and Sen. Mike Crapo (R., Idaho) in the Senate. The bills would remove the special $200 tax and months-long registration process currently applied to silencers. The requirement that anyone buying a silencer from a licensed gun dealer pass a background check will remain.

Gun rights advocates have long argued that silencers are a safety device since they reduce the noise associated with firing many firearms from a level that is damaging to the shooter’s hearing to a level that, while not actually silent, is far safer. They believe that easier access to and wider adoption of the devices could reduce firearm-related hearing damage, especially for those who commonly hunt without hearing protection. Advocates often compare firearms silencers to car mufflers since Hiram Percy Maxim had a hand in creating both and they both utilize the same technology.

Leading gun rights groups are backing the proposals and praised Sen. Crapo and Reps. Duncan and Carter for their leadership on the issue.

“This legislation will enable gun owners to have better access to hearing protection products and improve safety for the shooting sports by removing extensive wait times for burdensome paperwork processing that does not advance public safety,” said Lawrence Keane, senior vice president at the National Shooting Sports Foundation. “NSSF is appreciative of Sen. Crapo’s leadership on this firearms safety issue and his willingness to stand alongside lawful American gun owners, hunters, and shooting sports enthusiasts.”

“Many gun owners and sportsmen suffer severe hearing loss after years of shooting, and yet the tool necessary to reduce such loss is onerously regulated and taxed. It doesn’t make any sense,” said Chris W. Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association’s lobbying arm. “The Duncan-Carter Hearing Protection Act would allow people easier access to suppressors, which would help them to better protect their hearing.”

Sources within those leading gun groups put the Hearing Protection Act, along with Rep. Richard Hudson’s  (R., N.C.) National Reciprocity bill, among the top priorities for the gun rights movement under Presidenet-elect Donald Trump’s administration. Activists have publicly expressed excitement at the prospects for silencer reform in the aftermath of the election.

Man uses silencer / AP

Gun silencers are nothing to fear

In "The Godfather," a Mafioso prepping young Michael Corleone to assassinate some rivals gives him a pistol for the job. After firing a bullet into the cellar wall, Michael complains, "Ow! My ears!" His friend says, "Yeah, I left it noisy. That way, it scares any pain-in-the-ass innocent bystanders away."

The Corleones would have had little interest in a bill that would allow gun owners to obtain silencers without the federal permits required since 1934. Some people like the deafening boom of a gunshot. Most shooters don't, and the National Rifle Association is pressing for enactment of the proposed Hearing Protection Act, which also has the endorsement of Donald Trump Jr., an avid trophy hunter.

The proposal horrifies gun control advocates, who see it as a favor to homicidal maniacs. The Violence Policy Center in Washington argues that silencers pose a grave danger to public safety because they "enable mass shooters and other murderers to kill a greater number of victims more efficiently."

Some perspective is in order. Right now, getting a federal firearm permit requires a $200 fee, an extensive background check and a wait of several months. Possession of a silencer without a permit is a felony that carries a 10-year prison sentence. Under the proposed change, silencers would be treated like ordinary guns. Criminals would be ineligible, since they can't pass the required federal background check for purchases. Only law-abiding adults would have legal access.

The industry prefers the term "suppressor" because the devices don't eliminate the noise; they merely diminish it. The American Suppressor Association attests, "On average, suppressors reduce the noise of a gunshot by 20-35 decibels, roughly the same sound reduction as earplugs or earmuffs." A shot from a 9 mm pistol equipped with a silencer is about as loud as a thunderclap.

Recreational shooters and hunters would like to have silencers because they don't want to damage their hearing but dislike using ear protection. If the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had been around in the 1930s, gun rights lawyer Stephen Halbrook quipped to The Washington Post, it probably would have mandated their use.

Silencers also reduce the recoil and improve the accuracy of guns. For the average gun owner, there is no downside. There are collateral benefits, too. In rural and unincorporated areas where shooting is allowed, they minimize the disturbance to neighbors and wildlife.

It's not hard to imagine how they could be deployed for bad purposes. Yet there are some 900,000 registered silencers in this country, and they are rarely used in crimes.

Chicago has a lot of bloodshed, including 762 homicides and more than 3,500 shootings, last year, but silencers figure in little or any of it. Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesman for the Chicago Police Department, told me, "We seldom recover silencers. Sometimes you may get a gun with a makeshift silencer, but even that is rare."

A report last year by the Violence Policy Center cites a handful of shootings in which silencers were used. But the paucity of examples confirms that they are not of great interest to criminals. An earlier study by Paul A. Clark published in the Western Criminology Review found only two federal court cases involving the use of a silencer in a murder between 1995 and 2005.

He also unearthed eight cases in which "a silencer was actively used during commission of a crime but not used to physically injure anyone." That works out to one serious silencer-related crime per year, in a country that in 2005 had 16,740 homicides and 417,000 robberies.

Supporters of the status quo say this merely proves the effectiveness of strict regulation. But improvised versions can be fashioned out of flashlights, oil filters or metal conduits. YouTube has numerous videos providing guidance for the do-it-yourselfer.

If silencers were truly valuable to ordinary criminals, there would undoubtedly be a thriving black market and plenty of crimes committed with them. But the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives traced only 125 silencers in 2015 — not all of them connected to crimes. As Clark notes, a minimally clever miscreant can get the same noise reduction by wrapping his gun in a towel or pillow.

Any useful technology can be put to villainous ends. But the existing rule on silencers is a major hassle for the law-abiding and an irrelevance to criminals.

Texas congressmen hope gun silencer bill finds new momentum under Trump administration

Texas sport shooters in Congress want to make gun silencers cheaper -- but to do it, they’re going to have to make some noise.

For two years, more than 80 congressmen have supported a bill that would eliminate a $200 tax enforced on gun silencers, also known as gun suppressors. But even with some bipartisan support and limited opposition, the bill, known as the Hearing Protection Act, hasn’t garnered sufficient momentum to make it out of committee.

“We’ve got a lot going on,” said Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, who co-sponsored the legislation when it was introduced in 2015. “But if it got out of committee, I think it would pass no problem.”

Anyone who wants to purchase a gun silencer must go through a nine-month approval process before paying the tax, on top of the cost of the silencer. Silencers typically cost several hundreds of dollars, and some models cost more than $1,000.

If the legislation passes, the nine-month process would be replaced with the much faster National Instant Criminal Background check, which is used for firearms.

Advocates have worked hard to frame the hurdles prospective silencer buyers face as a public safety issue, rather than as a gun control issue. They say silencer is a misleading title because the accessory doesn’t fully eliminate the sound of the shot -- it just lowers the decibel count near the shooter’s ear.

“We’ve spent a fair amount of time in the last few sessions trying to educate legislators about gun suppressors, about what they do and what they don’t do,” said Owen Miller, who directs outreach for the American Suppressor Association.
“We put a muffler on vehicles -- why not on rifles?”

The bill has significant support in Texas -- 14 members of the Texas delegation signed on as co-sponsors on the first version of the bill, introduced in 2015, and the 2017 version was introduced by Rep. John Carter of Round Rock this week.

Twelve additional Texans in the House, including two Democrats, are members of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, which strongly supports the bill. Sen. John Cornyn is also a member.

Rep. Gene Green of Houston co-chairs the caucus. Although he said he prefers to use earmuffs when he goes shooting because they’re cheaper, smaller and much lighter, the Houston Democrat said he can’t see why suppressors need to be even more expensive for hunting enthusiasts.

“There would still be a bang, you’d still have to get cleared through the national database,” Green said. “It just wouldn’t hurt your eardrum if you weren’t wearing ear protection.”

Although the debate around gun-related issues is emotional and contentious, opposition to the legislation has been limited.

Kristen Rand, the legislative director of the Violence Policy Center, told The Washington Post she predicted outrage, but two of the most prominent gun-control organizations -- Everytown for Gun Safety and the Brady Campaign -- declined to comment for this article, and neither group released a statement when the bill was re-filed earlier this week.

As Williams noted, the bill hasn’t made it to the House floor for a vote. But if it landed on president-elect Donald Trump’s desk, Williams said he has no doubt Trump would sign it -- especially because his son, Donald Trump Jr., is an avid hunter who’s appeared in videos for a Utah-based gun silencer manufacturer.

“It might be a big benefit to have him support it,” Williams said. “It’s a health issue.”

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