Hearing protection for shooters is back in the news and back on the desks of our federal legislators. The Firearms Coalition has been calling for deregulation of firearm suppressors – what the law and non-gunnies call “silencers” – for decades. Contrary to Hollywood portrayals, a suppressor does not make a gun silent. It’s a rather simple gadget attached to the end of a gun’s barrel to reduce excessive noise.
My late father wrote about deregulating suppressors back in 1989. I wrote about the inanity of suppressor laws in this column in 2011, and again when Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., finally introduced a bill to relieve the situation back in 2015. Salmon has retired, but Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., introduced an almost identical bill, H.R. 367, the Hearing Protection Act of 2017, in the opening days of the 115th Congress, and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, followed up with S. 59 in the Senate a few days later. While neither bill goes as far toward deregulating suppressors as hardcore rights advocates would prefer, they are both a huge step in the right direction.
Currently, silencers are restricted under the provisions of the National Firearms Act of 1934, or NFA. The NFA was passed as a way to limit Americans’ access to machine guns and heavy weapons. It was billed as a response to “motor bandits” and mobsters like Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, “Machine Gun” Kelly and Al Capone, who had become household names thanks to sensational press reports, radio programs and action movies. But what really had the politicians worried were the masses of frustrated veterans who had come home from a brutal war to poverty, unemployment and empty promises of a reward in the too-distant future.
In 1932, some 40,000 of these desperate veterans and their supporters, known as the “Bonus Army,” marched on Washington and demanded payment of the IOUs the government had given them in return for their service. Congress refused to accede to the marchers’ demands, and President Hoover eventually resorted to using cavalry, tanks and teargas to drive the protesters off. Marchers returned in 1933 to challenge the new president, Franklin Roosevelt, but again they were denied.
Some thought the veterans were bent on overthrowing the U.S. government, and official Washington was worried. Politicians of the day – unlike many of the current crop – understood that they could not simply ignore the constitutional prohibition on infringing on the right of the people to keep and bear arms, but Roosevelt’s attorney general, Homer Cummings, convinced Congress to do an end-run on the Constitution by claiming they weren’t regulating firearms, but rather just taxing certain “dangerous” goods.
The NFA instituted an onerously high tax on the transfer of items included under its purview and required registration of those items to verify the taxes paid. It also required that people seeking to own these items undergo an extensive background investigation and get permission from their local sheriff or chief of police before they could take possession.
Somehow silencers were included under this law, and from that day to this, any device that is designed or used to reduce the sound of a firearm has been treated the same as a machine gun. Actually, in many ways the restrictions on “silencers” are even more draconian than the restrictions on machine guns, because any part or piece of a silencer is considered to be a silencer itself, where only a few key components of machine guns are restricted.
This expansive definition is even more problematic considering how remarkably simple a silencer is. It works exactly like a car muffler, providing an enclosed space to momentarily capture and slow the release of the hot gasses that propel the bullet down the barrel. Slowing the release of the gasses reduces the noise generated by a shot. Taping a 2-liter, plastic soda bottle over the muzzle of a gun will attenuate its noise output. But doing that is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Under the new proposals, silencers would be treated like rifles and shotguns, rather than like machine guns, which is still overkill. Why should a muffler be restricted or controlled at all? In many European countries, the only regulations regarding suppressors are those requiring them. Their use is considered good manners and common courtesy, like mufflers on motorcycles.
Suppressors are also in the news recently because the Marine Corps is considering installing them on all of the guns in an entire infantry battalion. The general promoting the idea points to improved communications among soldiers, safer range conditions and reductions in hearing damage claims – the exact same benefits that would be realized by civilian shooters and hunters.
While suppressors don’t completely eliminate the need for ear protection while shooting most guns, they do reduce noise enough to make shooting safer and more pleasant for participants and nearby neighbors.
The House version of the Hearing Protection Act launched with 43 cosponsors and should be able to be passed relatively easily – if Republican leadership allows it hearings and votes. In the Senate, where Republicans and rights supporters enjoy a narrower majority, a more difficult fight is expected. The Firearms Coalition is focusing our attention on that tougher fight first. If we can get the bill passed out of the Senate, passage in the House should be a slam-dunk. This approach avoids the possibility of expending time and energy to get it through the House, only to have it die in the Senate.
Readers are encouraged to contact senators and urge passage of this important legislation.
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