We’ve all seen the images in movies and television shows. The stealthy criminal or assassin stands in the shadows and affixes a slender, menacing tube on the end of their handgun and moves in for the kill. They take aim, pull the trigger and a faint sound resembling a blow dart leaving a tube is heard and the victim falls dead.
That’s actually a wildly inaccurate depiction of the reality of suppressors (which are called silencers in the media and Hollywood) but it seems to be a lasting impression. In reality, a gun with a suppressor on it still makes a quite audible report, but it’s just not as loud as the ear shattering boom from a large bore weapon lacking such equipment. But should they be legal? The gun industry certainly thinks so and would like to see some of the current restrictions on their use either eased or eliminated. (Reuters)
The U.S. gun industry is trying to shake off the Hollywood hitman image of the gun silencer and rebrand it as a hearing-protection device in a campaign to roll back regulations that date to the 1930s.
Industry lobbying has led to more than a dozen states legalizing silencers for hunting since 2011. Now gun advocates are pressing Congress to repeal a Depression-era law that requires a months-long screening process for silencer buyers – far more scrutiny than gun buyers face.
Sales of silencers – or “suppressors,” as the industry prefers to call them – are booming. The number of silencers registered with the U.S. government more than doubled to 792,282 in February 2015 from 360,534 in March 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
The restrictions on ownership of suppressors have been eased in a number of states in recent years as the article notes, but the federal government certainly takes the question seriously. As one study from Western Criminology Review found, in the rare cases where a silencer was used in a crime, sentences for violations which might normally bring a two to three year prison term were increased to thirty years or more.
Unfortunately, the data on the question of how big of a problem this represents is thin at best. The same study indicates that in the five years prior to 2007 the FBI recorded an average of only 30 to 40 cases per year out of roughly 75,000 federal gun crimes where a suppressor was used. (And of that number, there were only two murders.) But just to play devil’s advocate here, that might be because they were much harder to obtain.
Perhaps the question is better addressed by asking what benefit criminals gain from the use of a suppressor. I suppose assassins shooting from a distance could definitely gain an advantage if there was less of an audible report indicating which direction the shot came from. But in terms of close combat, robberies and gang encounters in the streets it’s going to be pretty obvious where the shooting is going on. While I’m generally on the side of less restrictions in any gun related question, I’ll confess that I’m on the fence here. There are definitely at least some cases where a suppressor could make a criminal more effective or harder to capture quickly, but is that a reason to deny them to the law abiding?
To answer that question we should probably examine the other side of the issue. What benefits are there to having a suppressor? The big one is clearly the noise suppression factor and the long term effects on the shooter’s hearing. Medical studies reveal that long term exposure can adversely affect the hearing of shooters and it’s always preferable to wear hearing protection where possible. But hunters generally don’t want to lose any of their other senses when tracking game. Perhaps more to the point, if you find your home being invaded and are reaching for your weapon, the average criminal won’t want to take a time out while you put in your ear plugs. A quieter gun is simply better for your hearing in the long run.
The only other aspect of the debate I would touch on here is the effect on reliability for the weapon. There seems to be a lot of dispute over the question, but many reports indicate that a weapon is more likely to jam when it’s repeatedly fired with a suppressor attached. Also, you’ll probably need to clean the barrel more often if you habitually use a suppressor because the back pressure will cause a build-up of grit internally faster than if all of the exhaust was quickly exiting the weapon.
As I said above, I’m going to have to consider this question a bit more. I have no problem with enhanced sentencing for criminals using suppressors in the commission of crimes because I’m not particularly concerned about the welfare of those who abuse their Second Amendment rights to break the law. But restricting access to the law abiding seems ill conceived, as with so many other gun control laws.