The SHUSH Act Is Dangerous and Unnecessary, Would Make It Legal for Convicted Felons to Buy Silencers

Bottom Line: Silencers pose a significant danger in the wrong hands, making it harder for bystanders or law enforcement to identify and react quickly to gunshots. In an active shooter situation, for example, hearing and recognizing a gunshot can be a matter of life and death. But radical legislation would repeal all federal laws on firearm silencers, making it legal for convicted felons, domestic abusers, and other people with dangerous histories to buy silencers. These core public safety laws have kept silencers out of criminal hands for decades, without blocking access for law—abiding citizens. The gun lobby presents this legislation as an attempt to protect shooters’ hearing, but silencers are not the most effective or the safest way to do so. Widely available ear protection products work better than silencers to protect hearing and safety — which is why the U.S. military relies on them, not on silencers, to protect soldiers’ hearing. Lawmakers should join law enforcement officers and major law enforcement organizations in rejecting the SHUSH Act and the gun lobby’s dangerous pursuit of profit over safety.

The SHUSH Act would strip away federal silencer laws and make it legal for convicted felons, domestic abusers, and the dangerously mentally ill to buy silencers.

  • The Gun Control Act, the bedrock of federal firearms law since 1968, prohibits convicted felons, domestic abusers, and the dangerously mentally ill from possessing firearms, including silencers. The Brady Bill requires licensed gun dealers to consult the national background check system before making any sale.
  • The National Firearms Act, enacted in 1934 to fight organized crime, requires all buyers of silencers, machine guns, and other especially dangerous weapons to pass criminal background checks and comply with other 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 short-barreled firearms and other especially dangerous weapons. Note that automatic firearms manufactured after May 1986 generally may not be possessed or transferred.
  • The SHUSH Act would strip silencers from all of these laws. For the first time in 80 years, felons, domestic abusers, and the dangerously mentally ill would be legally able to buy and possess silencers.
  • Removing silencers from these protections would undermine the laws’ 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. demonstrating that our federal laws work 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 and identify the gunshots can mean the difference between life and death.

In 2015, Christopher Dorner relied on silencers to enable a 10-day shooting spree and run from the law, during which he killed four people, including two police officers, with silencer-equipped firearms.

  • Silencers gave Dorner 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.”
  • Dorner 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.

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 tens of thousands of shootings per year. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. 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.
  • 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.0 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.

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 the safest 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.”, October 31, 2015.
  • Ear protection products work better than silencers to protect hearing and safety — which is why the U.S. military relies on them, 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. Widely available ear protection products muffle loud noises and magnify 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.”, August 22, 2013.
  • It’s not public health that would benefit from the SHUSH ACT, 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.”, June 12, 2016.

Law enforcement officers and major law enforcement organizations have repeatedly opposed the rollback of silencer safety laws.

  • The Police Foundation, the Police Executive Research Forum, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, and other national police associations oppose deregulating silencers, stating that “these proposals, if enacted, would put police officers and the public at grave risk.National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence. Statement of Chairman Jim Johnson on H.R. 367 and S.59, the Hearing Protection Act Of 2017.
  • At the state level, groups like the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, the Montana Game Warden Association, and the Maine Warden Service have all recently opposed bills to relax state silencer laws.Cook, Mike. “Use of Firearm Suppressors in Minnesota Gets Approval from House Committee.” Minnesota House of Representatives, March 12, 2015.; Jess, Steve. “Rifle Suppressor Bill Favored By Some Hunters, Opposed By Game Wardens.” Montana Public Radio, March 23, 2015.; 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 — called this legislation “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?”, March 21, 2017.

The SHUSH Act would make it harder for law enforcement to solve crimes.

  • Under the bill, the Justice Department would be forced to destroy existing records that can help law enforcement officers solve gun crimes, catch dangerous criminals, and protect communities.

The SHUSH Act would block states from enforcing their own laws regarding silencers.

  • Under the legislation, 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.