Is the new 'silencer' gun bill a matter of public safety?

Silencers, or suppressors, can protect a shooter's hearing while also reducing recoil, advocates say.

Lawmakers in the US House and Senate have introduced bills that would scrap the stringent restrictions currently placed on "silencers," arguing that the firearm accessory portrayed by Hollywood as a tool for stealthy assassins should instead be seen primarily as a safety device.

A similar measure failed last fall, but with the new turnover in Washington, proponents are hopeful to find success under President-elect Donald Trump, who ran as an ally of the gun lobby. The lawmakers contend that their policy, dubbed the Hearing Protection Act, would make it easier for lawful gun owners to lessen the damage done to their ears with each shot fired. The measure would eliminate a $200 tax and nine-month approval process currently in place, making silencers no more difficult to legally obtain than firearms in general.

"It’s about safety," Donald Trump Jr., an avid sportsman and a son of the incoming head-of-state, said during a sit-down with SilencerCo’s CEO Joshua Waldron in September. "If you had that kind of noise levels in any other industry as you would in shooting sports, OSHA would be all over the place, people would be going crazy. It’s about safety. It’s just another rule the government wants to put in place for no reason."

Mr. Trump Jr. said his father would "obviously" sign the bill into law. The added restrictions on suppressors constitute "arbitrary policies by people who don't know what they’re talking about," he said.

In addition to protecting a shooter's hearing, silencers – which the industry prefers to call "suppressors" because the sound is only dampened, not silenced – could also reduce recoil. But the downsides associated with the potentially bulky add-ons can make them less-than-desirable for certain illicit activity.

"Suppressed firearms are clearly not the choice for criminals," the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) in Newtown, Conn., wrote in a factsheet last year. "This is likely due to the fact that they do not silence firearms like in the movies, they are ineffective on revolvers, they prevent the proper function of most semi-automatic handguns without the addition of a special piston system and they make firearms longer and heavier, which makes them more difficult to conceal."

That could explain why a researcher who studied California state criminal cases and federal cases nationwide found only two instances of a silencer being used in a murder between 1995 and 2005. More recently, however, silencers have grown increasingly popular. The number of registered silencers more than tripled from 285,087 in 2010 to 902,085 last year, driving gun accessories sales as one of the fastest-growing segments of the industry, as The Washington Post reported. That has raised alarm bells for some advocates who argue the purported purpose of the bill is a false front.

"They want the general public to think it’s about hearing aids or something, Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center told the Post. "It’s both a silly and smart way to do it, I guess. But when the general public finds out what’s really happening, there will be outrage."

Even so, opposition to the proposal has been muted. Two of the most prominent gun-control groups – the Brady Campaign and Everytown for Gun Safety – have kept mum on the topic, neither releasing a statement nor answering press questions, as The Dallas Morning News reported.

The National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA), meanwhile, has urged its supporters to contact their lawmakers to voice favor for the proposal, both the House version (H.R. 367) and the Senate version (S. 59).

"Many gun owners and sportsmen suffer severe hearing loss, and yet sound suppressors – a tool that can reduce such loss – is overly regulated and taxed," NRA-ILA Executive Director Chris W. Cox said in a statement, arguing that the law would make it easier to buy necessary safety equipment.

Even in Chicago, where there were 762 homicides and more than 3,500 shootings last year, the cause to keep silencer regulations intact seems weak, as Chicago Tribune editorial board member Steve Chapman wrote in a column arguing that the proposed change would keep dangerous criminals ineligible.

"Any useful technology can be put to villainous ends," Chapman wrote. "But the existing rule on silencers is a major hassle for the law-abiding and an irrelevance to criminals."

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