Second Amendment activists and their Republican allies in Congress are pushing to slash a more than 80-year-old law regulating the sale of gun silencers. The proposal, included as a plank of the Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreation Enhancement Act, has advanced further than any other significant pro-gun bills of the Trump era. It now awaits a vote by the full House of Representatives.
Debate over the measure has been defined by clashing claims about what deregulation of silencers, or suppressors, would mean for public safety. The restrictions imposed on the products by the National Firearms Act of 1934 require would-be owners to pay a $200 tax, undergo a vetting process that can stretch to a year, and register their purchase with the federal government. Opponents of relaxing the rules worry that removing those hurdles would make silencers readily available not just to hunters and target shooters, but also to buyers with violent intentions.
Supporters of silencer deregulation call those fears overblown. Echoing a pro-gun talking point, Stephen Halbrook, a gun-rights attorney, told lawmakers at a House committee hearing last week that “other than in Hollywood’s fantasy world, silencers have rarely been used in crime.”
That’s true today, according to crime statistics. A review of federal prosecutions from 1995 to 2005 found only 153 cases during that decade in which a silencer was used in a crime. The majority of those charges were for criminal possession of a silencer, not the use of the device in the course of a separate crime like murder. But the suggestion that the use of silencers is limited to benign ear protection does not square with the historical record.
A dive into the New York Times archives from the decades between the silencer’s invention at the turn of the century and the devices’ regulation in the 1930s shows they were engineered for offensive purposes, and sometimes used in horrific crimes.
An ominous debut
The silencer’s pedigree belies the harmless origin story that their boosters peddle. It was first designed by Hiram Percy Maxim, son of the inventor of the first portable automatic weapon, for explicitly military purposes. Boasted Maxim the younger, during a 1909 demonstration: “I shall make war noiseless!” He marketed the device to militaries.
The prospect of criminal misuse was immediately apparent. A month after Maxim’s demonstration, a New York Times editorial argued of his invention: “A true sportsmen would not use it…. The burglar, the highway robber, and the Black Hand assassin are the only other persons to whom it could be of advantage.”
Within a few years, police reports began to prove the Times right. In 1915, a New York father used a rifle fitted with a silencer to massacre his wife and children before he turned the gun on himself. The incident lead New York legislators to ban the devices within the state under the Sullivan Act.
A quiet daytime murder
One afternoon in December 1920, a group of robbers equipped with silencers murdered a Fifth Avenue jeweler and managed to escape in broad daylight. “Neighboring tenants had heard no unusual noise” during the heist, reported the Times.
A silenced rifle fells a man in the arms of his in-laws-to-be
On a summer evening in 1924, a Brooklyn fruit merchant named Anthony Panno died in the apartment of his betrothed, Sadie Valente, when rifle bullets crashed through the windows. As Panno collapsed, his intended sister-in-law assumed he was joking, only to be horrified as the floor spread with blood. Police told reporters they believed a silencer was used: Neither the Valentes “nor any other person in the vicinity heard the shots.”
A gangland assassination in front of hundreds
A Brooklyn party in 1925 was ruined when three gunmen bearing pistols equipped with silencers infiltrated the event and shot Henry “Doggy” Ginsburg at his banquet table as 200 guests looked on. He “was waiting for a show to start when suddenly those about him heard him groan and sink to the floor.” Ginsburg had been implicated in a feud among East New York laundrymen. His killers got away.
Massive theft rings rely on silenced guns
Within a single 24-hour period in 1925, the NYPD broke up two massive stick-up gangs. The “‘Cowboy’ Tessler” gang was accused of 80 street robberies in the city, along with a murder. The Rothenberg gang was charged with committing more than 100 thefts. Both were notable for their reliance on silencers.
Members of the gang led by Tessler — “a cool, smiling, well-spoken youth of 25 years, who was educated at Columbia University” — confessed they had shot at police officers dispatched to round them up, firing 10 rounds from suppressed weapons at police and three from typical guns. “I only heard the three,” one of the pursuing officers said of the shots aimed his way. “My God! I never knew how near death I was.”
The Rothenbergs, meanwhile, maintained a gang shooting gallery in a warehouse specifically for getting accustomed to shooting with the extra bulk of a silencer. A detective “told of two instances where members of the gang had done some free shooting with the silencers, though in other cases they opened fire with the old-fashioned ‘loud speakers.’”
A madman with a silencer terrorizes the Plains
A 45-year-old farm hand named Frank Carter “spread terror from Omaha to Council Bluffs” in February 1926 using a .22 pistol and a Maxim silencer. Carter, deemed insane by “Omaha neurotic experts,” told reporters soon after his arrest, “Sometimes I want to kill, kill, kill.”
After boasting of two particular killings, he explained that he had bought the silencer because “I just thought thought that one day I might use [the pistol] and would not want anyone to hear me, so I had the silencer put on.”
Too much for Maxim
As the headlines mounted, Maxim grew sick of the bad press. In 1930, he announced his company would cease making gun silencers “because of the popular impression that this invention was an aid to crime,” the Times reported.
He vowed to only sell similar devices to quiet the exhaust of cars.