Congress could vote as soon as this week to repeal part of an 80-year-old law that has forced owners of silencers to register the devices with the federal government. Supporters of removing restrictions on silencers have dismissed the concerns of opponents by pointing out that suppressors, as they’re also known, are today rarely used in crimes.
The more pertinent public safety question, however, is what could happen if many more silencers enter circulation.
Even with the hurdles that silencer buyers must deal with, demand for the items is already increasing, fueled by a new generation of suppressors and some slick marketing. There are now more that 1.3 million of them registered with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, up from about 360,000 just five years ago. There’s also evidence to suggest that as silencers have gained a foothold with gun owners, some are winding up in the black market.
We’ve written before that as goes the legal gun industry, so goes the criminal arsenal. Firearms and related tools like extended magazines that are initially sold legally end up in criminals’ hands in several ways: unregulated private transactions, straw purchases and, of course, theft.
For instance, as higher-caliber semiautomatic pistols have become more popular with legal gun buyers, more have been recovered at crimes scenes: from 2012 to 2015, the number of .40 caliber pistols traced by the ATF shot up by 39 percent, whereas the number of recovered .22s, once the most common handguns in the country, only increased by 2 percent.
The same phenomenon could be repeating itself as silencers proliferate. For an ongoing project on stolen guns, my colleague Brian Freskos has collected theft reports from law enforcement agencies around the country. He hasn’t asked specifically for information on silencers in his records requests, but stolen silencers appear by the dozens in the data set he’s building.
One state that has provided particularly extensive records on stolen guns is Florida. There, at least 94 silencers were reported stolen from 2010 to 2016, our data shows.
The Doral Police Department, near Miami, recorded three stolen silencers. In May 2012, thieves snatched two of the devices at once, both designed for .45 pistols. In January 2015, a SilencerCo 9mm silencer was reported stolen.
Tampa reported three stolen silencers. Two were taken on the same night in June 2010, a Gemtech .45 and an AA Arms rifle silencer. The third was for an AR-style rifle, reported stolen in October 2012.
As stores stock more silencers, they get snatched from shelves and display cases, too. Nationwide, 52 silencers were reported stolen by licensed dealers in 2016, according to the ATF. Two hundred more were reported lost.
It’s not surprising that as the number of silencers in civilian hands has jumped, criminals are also getting their hands on the devices.
A Harvard/Northeastern survey of gun owners suggests that gun theft from individuals occurs on a massive scale. Those who own the most guns and stash them in locations like cars are the most likely to have their weapons stolen.