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A GSG-5 rifle equipped with a solvent trap sold by Solvent Trap Etc. a business shuttered by the ATF earlier this year. [Solvent Trap Etc. Facebook]

ATF

The ATF Is Shutting Down Businesses It Says Are Hawking Silencers Disguised as Cleaning Tools

Sellers of "solvent traps" were pushing the legal envelope. The bureau noticed.

Utah firearms dealer Jeffrey Luck knows his customers are frustrated when they hear it takes $200, and as long as nine months, to process a federal application to buy a firearms silencer. But the law is the law, and as the licensed owner of Darkside Tactical, Luck says he stays on the right side of it.

So imagine Luck’s annoyance when he learned earlier this year that an unlicensed business had popped up on the Internet using a name almost identical to his — Darkside Defense — and that it was selling a device often used as an illegal substitution for a silencer.

Dubbed “solvent traps,” the devices are cylinders — typically made of metal — that can be attached to the barrel of a gun for the supposed purpose of catching cleaning fluids. But if one is left on a firearm and the weapon is fired, the device dampens the noise produced by the gunshot, mimicking the function of a silencer. Luck thinks the devices are almost never used as anything but silencers, and many experts agree with him.

“It’s frustrating for those of us who are actually in the industry when some fringe element pops up and tries to skirt the rules,” Luck said.

Luck said he sent the owner of Darkside Defense multiple letters demanding that he stop using a name that could so easily confuse customers and harm his own reputation. He didn’t hear back. Later, he learned that federal agents had resolved the matter for him: In February, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives seized Darkside Defense’s website, citing its sale of solvent traps.

A posting on the agency’s website describing the closure of Darkside Defense said that it had “determined that these ‘solvent traps’ are, in fact, silencers …” and that “it is a violation of the National Firearms Act to manufacture, receive, transport, or deliver a silencer that has not been registered.”

The bust is one of several enforcement actions carried out by the agency targeting websites that sell the devices. In another case, SD Tactical Arms of Prescott, Arizona, said on Facebook that the ATF forced it to stop selling solvent traps, which the store said accounted for “99 percent” of its income. In a third case, Solvent Traps Etc. in Winter Haven, Florida, also posted on its Facebook page that ATF had shut it down for selling solvent traps.  

The ATF declined comment on any of the cases because they are ongoing.

The Trace could not find a working number for the owner of Darkside Defense. The owners of SD Tactical Arms and Solvent Traps Etc. could not be reached for comment.  

The solvent trap controversy comes against the backdrop of a national debate over how silencers should be regulated. At present, silencers fall under the National Firearms Act. An individual wishing to own one must fill out a special application with the ATF, pass a background check, submit fingerprints, and pay a $200 tax. It can take months for the ATF to process an application. Once a buyer is cleared to own a silencer, the device must be registered with the ATF.

But that could soon change. Under a bill introduced to Congress in January, people would be allowed to purchase silencers like they do any firearm at a licensed dealer: with only a background check. The $200 tax would be eliminated.

Supporters of the bill, called the Hearing Protection Act, say silencers are a tool to protect the ears of gun owners and make the shooting experience more enjoyable. In a document leaked earlier this year, the ATF’s deputy director, Ronald Turk, suggested that the agency consider loosening restrictions on silencers, noting that few crimes are committed using the devices and processing so many applications puts a strain on the agency.  

Opponents of relaxing restrictions on silencers argue that earplugs are a more effective protection, and that if silencers get into the hands of criminals, those criminals could shoot victims without alerting others nearby or drawing the attention of law enforcement.

Even though they are difficult to obtain, silencers have become one of the fastest-growing segments of the gun industry. In 2010, there were 285,087 registered silencers. Last year that figure was 902,085.

According to an ATF spokeswoman, solvent traps are not illegal. But if a trap has parts that the ATF deems are “intended” to make the device function as a silencer, it must be identified as such, and appropriately regulated.

According one law enforcement source, some of the confusion about solvent traps comes from the word “intended” in that definition, also in the written definition on the ATF website, since it forced the ATF to venture into the murky territory of deciding not just what the item is, but how its owner plans to use it.

Several law enforcement experts interviewed said solvent traps are designed to get around rules on silencers. They said there’s no need to attach a metal cylinder to the end of a gun barrel to catch solvent when it’s just as easy to hold it over a pan or a garbage can.

Not everyone agrees. Steven Howard, a Michigan-based firearms expert often called to testify at criminal and civil trials, said there are plenty of people who legitimately use solvent traps to catch their solvent, which can spray in all directions and stain whatever it lands on if it’s not contained.

He agreed that many solvent traps can be used as silencers, but said so can many things: a potato, a soda can, or a flashlight.

“If a bad guy wants a silencer he’s going to make one,” he said. “This is just feel good work for the ATF to say ‘Look what we’ve done. We’ve made you safer.’”

Jerold Levine, a Long Island lawyer who often represents people charged with gun crimes, said buying a solvent trap may save someone $200, but at risk of a lengthy prison term.

“I would advise a gun owner never to possess or sell such items, precisely because of the reaction ATF is having,” he said.

An ATF internal newsletter discussed the case against Darkside Defense, focusing on the fact that the agency seized its website, a novel technique for agents.

The article said the ATF searched the source code of the website itself — a technique it compared to running a background check for a website — and discovered that the proprietor had included terms like “silencer” and “suppressor” in the metadata. That means that if a person typed the keywords in a search engine, Darkside Defense’s website had a better chance of appearing in the results, the internal newsletter said.

Agents also mined social media and executed search warrants on e-mail accounts and IP addresses to figure out who had bought the solvent traps from Darkside Defense, the newsletter said. Some of the devices ended up in the hands of people who are prohibited from possessing firearms, the newsletter said.