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Debate Over Silencers: Hearing Protection Or Public Safety Threat?

Legislation would loosen restrictions on gun suppressors, with proponents saying quieter guns protect shooters' hearing. But opponents say easier-to-get silencers are a risk to the public.
Niki Chan Wylie for NPR
Legislation would loosen restrictions on gun suppressors, with proponents saying quieter guns protect shooters' hearing. But opponents say easier-to-get silencers are a risk to the public.

There's a wall-long mural in the manufacturing area of SilencerCo, in West Valley City, Utah, that shows a crowd of people with muzzled mouths. One's holding a sign that says, "Fight the Noise." Another says: "Guns don't have to be loud."

As a leading manufacturer and seller of gun silencers — or suppressors, as they're more accurately called — SilencerCo wants to quiet guns. Congress may soon help in the effort.

Silencers are one of the most heavily regulated products in the gun industry. Lawmakers are pushing legislation that would loosen those long-standing federal regulations, making silencers easier to buy for the general public.

The silencer industry, gun-advocacy groups and some shooting-sports groups are backing the legislation, saying that quieter guns preserve and protect shooters' hearing. The gun accessory, they argue, is unfairly regulated and vilified.

Gun-control groups and congressional Democrats are fighting against the legislation, evoking recent mass shootings and assassinations of police as examples of why guns should be loud and their sound recognizable.

Both argue that it's a matter of public safety.

A muffler for a gun

There are nearly a million registered silencers owned by people in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. But Jason Schauble, the chief revenue officer at SilencerCo, says they're largely misunderstood.

"Most people know what they see in movies," he says. "And they see, oh, it's always a spy, you know, somebody who's involved in some sort of combat scenario [using them]. And then also, the sound that it makes is very, very quiet compared to what really happens."

A silencer doesn't silence a gunshot. "It's essentially a muffler for a gun," Schauble says.

It gives the explosive flash of gas and pressure that propels a bullet space to expand into and dissipate. The result is a dampened or suppressed sound, and less-jarring recoil — both perks for a shooter.

"It's still loud enough to hear," Schauble says. "It's just not loud enough to do permanent damage to your hearing, which is what most people who shoot and hunt are looking for."

There are more than 10 million hunters in the U.S., an estimated 20 million recreational shooters and many more people who own guns. Schauble and gun advocacy groups like the National Rifle Association say that many of them don't, or aren't able, to use proper hearing protection. Some hunters will choose not to wear earplugs because they don't want to sacrifice their ability to hear in the backcountry while stalking prey; gun owners might use a gun in self-defense without hearing protection readily available.

"It's about — I don't have to wear hearing protection while I shoot; I don't have to damage my ears," Schauble says. "So we think of it as a public health issue."

The Hearing Protection Act

Lawmakers are taking a similar tact. The legislation, proposed in the House by Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., is called the Hearing Protection Act.

"This legislation is about safety — plain and simple," Duncan said, in a statement after the bill was introduced. "I can't tell you how better off the shooting sports enthusiasts would be if we had easier access to suppressors to help protect our hearing."

Silencers are currently regulated under the National Firearms Act, legislation that was passed by Congress in 1934 to address mob violence and the spread of new or modified firearms like sawed-off shotguns and machine guns.

Various silencers on display at SilencerCo, a Utah-based company that sells silencers.
/ Niki Chan Wylie for NPR
Niki Chan Wylie for NPR
Various silencers on display at SilencerCo, a Utah-based company that sells silencers.

That law didn't prohibit the ownership of silencers, but it did make them harder to buy or trade by adding a $200 fee, creating a federal registry and making a longer registration process. Gun owners say that it currently takes about 9 months to buy a silencer.

The Hearing Protection Act would eliminate that fee and make buying a silencer similar to buying a hunting rifle, which has no federal waiting period. Instead, it's dependent on the state.

Crime and silencers

"This act is reckless," says David Chipman, a senior policy adviser at Americans for Responsible Solutions and a retired 25-year veteran of the ATF. "And it's a threat to public safety."

Chipman describes himself as a sportsman and gun owner. And he says that guns don't sound like guns when a suppressor is being used. They also reduce the flash at the end of a muzzle.

In combination, he says, a silencer could confuse the police or the public during a shooting and allow "an active shooter to not give away their location."

Chipman points to the case of Christopher Dorner, a former Los Angeles police officer who used silencers during a two-day killing spree in 2013.

Statistically though, Dorner was an outlier. Data from the ATF show that silencers are seldom used in crime. From 2012-15, 390 silencers were recovered from crime scenes where an ATF trace was requested. During that same period, more than 600,000 pistols were recovered.

Chipman and gun-control advocates say the reason silencers are so rarely used in crime is because they've been so strictly regulated since the 1930s.

"Right now the system seems to be working," Chipman says. "It's allowing for [silencer] sales to go up and we're rarely seeing cops killed with these things, so why fix what's not broke?

NPR reached out to a number of law enforcement associations and individual police officers to see if they shared Chipman's concern.

The National Sheriffs' Association said it would review the Hearing Protection Act "assiduously." The International Association of Chiefs of Police did not respond for comment.

Sid Heal, a leader at the National Tactical Officers Association and a retired SWAT commander for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, said he doesn't support the easing of regulations around silencers and that the risks outweigh the gains.

Steve Ijames, a former Missouri police chief and current SWAT trainer, felt differently.

"I don't think there's any way to escape the reality that if any particular product that could be misused or abused is more readily available, it's just simply an increased statistical probability [that it will]," he says.

But Ijames does not believe there would be widespread abuse and as a recreational shooter, he says, he sees the benefits of shooting with a suppressor.

The silencer industry, for its part, has been on a marketing tour. Knox Williams, the president and executive director of the American Suppressor Association, has been visiting statehouses around the country and giving demonstrations to state lawmakers, showing what silencers do.

He's planning a similar demonstration for national lawmakers later this spring. And while he knows that the Hearing Protection Act might not be a legislative priority, given issues like health care and tax reform, Williams says he's optimistic that silencer regulations will soon change.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.