Bottom Line: The gun lobby is pushing a radical bill in Congress (H.R. 367) that would remove silencers from the National Firearms Act (NFA), the federal law that has kept especially deadly weapons—like machine guns—out of the hands of dangerous people for over eighty years. Silencers pose a significant danger in the wrong hands, making it harder for bystanders or law enforcement to identify and react quickly to gunshots. The NFA has been effective in keeping silencers out of criminal hands, without blocking access for law-abiding citizens. Lawmakers should reject H.R. 367 and the gun lobby’s dangerous pursuit of profit over safety.
H.R. 367 would undermine the NFA and enable dangerous people to buy silencers with no background check whatsoever.
- The NFA, which was passed in 1934 to fight organized crime, requires machine gun and silencer buyers to pass a criminal background check and comply with common-sense safety provisions.
- Like machine gun buyers, silencer buyers must submit fingerprints and a photograph. Local police or sheriffs are notified of the sale. Federal law enforcement keeps a record of all purchases. Any loss or theft must be reported to law enforcement.26 U.S.C. § 5812(a); 27 CFR 479.86. These provisions apply not only to automatic firearms and silencers, but also to certain shortbarreled firearms and other especially dangerous weapons. Note that automatic firearms manufactured after May 1986 generally may not be possessed or transferred.
- H.R. 367 would strip all of these requirements for silencers. And—for the first time in 80 years—felons, domestic abusers, and the dangerously mentally ill would be able to buy silencers with no background check, simply by finding an unlicensed seller.
- Removing silencers from the NFA would undermine the law’s success in keeping the public, and law enforcement officers, safe from crime. Research shows the use of silenced firearms in crime is rare,Clark, Paul A. “Criminal Use of Firearm Silencers.” Western Criminology Review 8, no. 2 (2007): 44–57. http://bit.ly/2kf7emZ. demonstrating the NFA works to keep silencers out of the wrong hands.
Silencers in the wrong hands create serious public safety risks.
- The loud and distinctive noise that a gun makes is one of its most important safety features: when people hear it, they realize they may need to run, hide, or protect others.
- In mass shootings, being able to hear the gunshots can mean the difference between life and death.
Silencers make it harder for police and first responders to react quickly to gunshots, with potentially deadly results. The distinctive sound of a gunshot alerts law enforcement to shootings tens of thousands of times per year, enabling a quick response. Without those alerts, law enforcement and medical care can be delayed.Goudie, Chuck. “Are Gun Silencers a Threat to Safety?” ABC7 Chicago, May 1, 2015. http://abc7.ws/1JR6euw.
- It’s often the sound of gunshots that prompts calls to 911. In Washington, DC, for example, 911 operators receive over a thousand calls every year reporting the sound of shots fired.Carr, Jillian B., and Jennifer L. Doleac. 2016. The Geography, Incidence, And Underreporting Of Gun Violence: New Evidence Using Shotspotter Data. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Carr_Doleac_gunfire_underreporting.pdf.
- ShotSpotter, a tool which recognizes the sound of gunshots, alerted law enforcement to nearly 75,000 gunfire incidents in 72 cities in 2015: That’s an average of one every 7 minutes."Shotspotter National Gunfire Index 2016". 2017. Shotspotter.Com. http://www.shotspotter.com/2016NGI.
- These alerts matter because quick access to medical care saves lives. Shorter 911 response times increase a victim’s likelihood of survival,Blackwell, Thomas H., MD, Kaufman, Jay S., MD, “Response Time Effectiveness: Comparison of Response Time and Survival in an Urban Emergency Medical Services System”, Academic Emergency Medicine, 2002, 9(4), 288-295. and have been estimated to explain up to 56% of the decrease in homicides over the last 50 years.Stratmann, Thomas, and David Chandler Thomas. 2016. "Dial 911 For Murder: The Impact Of Emergency Response Time On Homicides". George Mason University. doi:10.2139/ssrn.2843329. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2843329.
Silencers undermine city gun violence prevention efforts.
- Acoustic gunfire detection tools, which recognize the sound of a gunshot, help cities gather data and respond quickly to gun violence. These tools would be significantly undermined by the widespread use of silencers.Buckley, Cara. “High-Tech “Ears” Listen for Shot.” The New York Times, November 20, 2009.http://nyti.ms/2lCNtTm.
Law enforcement officers and major law enforcement organizations have repeatedly opposed the rollback of silencer safety laws.Recent examples of groups in opposition include the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, the Montana Game Warden Association, and the Maine Warden Service. Cook, Mike. “Use of Firearm Suppressors in Minnesota Gets Approval from House Committee.” Minnesota House of Representatives, March 12, 2015. http://bit.ly/1FURUw3; Jess, Steve. “Rifle Suppressor Bill Favored By Some Hunters, Opposed By Game Wardens.” Montana Public Radio, March 23, 2015. http://bit.ly/2kE860z; see also notes 3, 6 and 7.
- David Chipman, a retired 25-year federal law enforcement veteran—as well as a sportsman and a gun-owner—recently told National Public Radio that the Hearing Protection Act is “reckless” and “a threat to public safety” because silencers can confuse police and the public during a shooting and allow an active shooter to conceal his or her location.Rott, Nathan. “Debate Over Silencers: Hearing Protection Or Public Safety Threat?” wamu.org, March 21, 2017. http://bit.ly/2narbaN.
Because the current law works, crimes involving silencers are rare. But when silencers are used they can be devastating.
- Christopher Dorner relied on silencers to enable a 10-day shooting spree and run from the law. He first killed a young couple—his former boss’s daughter and her fiancé—execution-style, firing 14 shots at them while they sat in their car. Because he used a silencer, no witnesses heard the shots, and he made his getaway without being stopped. Days elapsed before police identified him.
- Over the next several days, Dorner used a silencer twice more to shoot at law enforcement officers in patrol cars without giving his position away. One officer was killed, another seriously wounded, and a third grazed with a bullet.
- Police finally tracked Dorner to a mountain cabin, where he used a silencer-equipped rifle to ambush responding officers with gunfire, killing one. The silencer made it difficult for officers to pinpoint the origin of the shots, giving Dorner a tactical advantage. By the end of the firefight, Dorner had killed another officer.
- By the end of the 10-day ordeal, Dorner had killed four people, including two police officers, with his silencer-equipped firearms.https://www.policefoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Police-Under-Attack.pdf. The silencers he used gave him a tactical advantage at every stage—from reducing the likelihood that he would be caught at the scene of his first crime to prolonging his final firefight with police, ten days later.All details of this incident provided via the Police Foundation report on the incident, “Police Under Attack: Southern California Law Enforcement Response to the Attacks by Christopher Dorner.” http://bit.ly/2mBt7KK
Silencers are not a “hearing protection” issue. The gun lobby claims their efforts are intended to protect hunters’ hearing, but silencers are not the most effective or safe way to do so.
- Silencers make hunting more dangerous. Silencers put hunters—and bystanders—at risk. As a Maine Warden Service officer noted, “[g]enerally, discharge of a firearm causes a loud report that all in the immediate area can hear. This cautions those in the area, which can prevent possible safety issues.”Ohm, Rachel. “Maine’s New Hunting Silencer Law Draws Muted Fire as Deer Season Begins.” Centralmaine.com, October 31, 2015. http://bit.ly/2lCMbaX.
- Ear protection products are a safe, cost-effective alternative. Widely available ear protection products work better than silencers to protect hearing and safety, muffling loud noises and magnifying sounds that users want to hear, such as the movement of an animal, or of another person.Alberts, Kristin. “A Guide to Buying Electronic Ear Muffs.” Guns.com, August 22, 2013. http://bit.ly/2lCEdi1 That’s why the U.S. military relies on ear protection, not silencers, to protect soldiers’ hearing.Hodgkins, Kelly. “The US Army’s New Earbuds Give Soldiers Tunable Hearing, Protection from Loud Noises.” Digital Trends, June 8, 2016. http://bit.ly/2kUyLXQ.
- It’s not public health that would benefit from H.R. 367, it’s the silencer market—one of the fastest-growing sectors within the firearm industry.Weingarten, Dean. “SilencerCo Leads Huge Growth in USA Suppressor Market.” Accurateshooter.com, June 12, 2016. http://bit.ly/2ki7Cw4.
H.R. 367 is also a federal overreach: it would block states from replicating the NFA’s safety provisions.
- Under H.R. 367, state and local policymakers who have carefully crafted their own laws to keep silencers out of the wrong hands would be blocked from enforcing many of those protections, and from making new ones—putting communities at risk.