Devices that make gunshots quieter — popularly known as silencers — aren’t illegal, but they can be difficult to obtain. Consumers who want to buy one must apply for a permit with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and pay a $200 fee. It can take months to complete a transaction.
On Tuesday, the House Committee on Natural Resource’s Subcommittee on Federal Lands held the first hearing on a bill that would eliminate this process altogether, allowing gun owners to purchase a silencer in a matter of minutes.
If approved, the legislation, pushed by the firearms industry and gun lobby, would represent the most significant changes to the commercial gun market since George W. Bush let the federal assault weapons ban expire in 2004. Making silencers easier to buy could also help prop up sales at gun stores, which have seen a dramatic drop off in business since the election of President Donald Trump.
Rolling back silencer regulation would also mean unwinding part of a law that has been in place for more than 80 years. Restrictions on the sale of silencers were created under the National Firearms Act, which was adopted in 1934. Should the Sportsman Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act (SHARE) pass, consumers would be able to buy silencers with just a standard background check by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and at no additional costs.
The bill would also deny the government the authority to classify bullets as “armor-piercing ammunition,” ease import rules on foreign-made assault rifles, and allow assault rifle owners to transport those guns through jurisdictions where they are banned.
The silencer-specific language in the bill is identical to the Hearing Protection Act, the stand-alone vehicle for the deregulation effort.
Silencers reduce the noise, smoke, and visible flash produced when a gun is fired. Proponents of deregulation argue that the products, also known as suppressors, are effective for hearing protection, and point out that unless one buys specialized subsonic ammunition, weapons fired with silencers are still loud. The blowdart-like sound attributed to silencers in movies like the James Bond series has little to do with reality.
Opponents contend that since silencers make gunfire harder to hear, they could interfere with law enforcement’s ability to respond to shootings, and potentially make obsolete technologies like ShotSpotter that try to identify gun crimes from the sound of gunshots. In an FAQ, ShotSpotter says that its system has on some occasions detected shots from silenced weapons, but that the company has not systematically tested the technology to make sure it is sensitive enough to record quieter discharges.
In anticipation of such a deregulation, gun companies have expanded their silencer businesses and ramped up branding. In July, American Outdoor Brands Company, which controls Smith & Wesson, bought Gemtech, a silencer company. James Debney, the chief executive officer of American Outdoors, said then that “at a time when the market is particularly soft,” Gemtech is “an excellent fit for our long-term strategy.”
In August, independent manufacturer Silencerco, which counts a son of the president, Donald Trump, Jr. as a fan, put out a slick new ad spot that puts the viewer in the perspective of the user of its Maxim 9, a pistol with a built-in silencer. The video looks like a montage of action in a first-person shooter video game.
Silencer deregulation could prove lucrative to a wide swath of gun companies. Not only could the elimination of registration requirements spark demand for the devices themselves, it could prompt consumers to buy new weapons and parts, as well. That’s because silencers can only be screwed into a gun’s barrel if the weapon has been threaded like the inside of a common nut. Gun owners who want to see what the silencer hype is all about would have to either buy a new gun or an aftermarket barrel designed for the specialized accessory.