At least 59 people are dead after a gunman opened fire Sunday night on a crowd gathered for a country music festival in Las Vegas. The incident now stands as the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, but some gun control advocates say the carnage could have been even worse if the perpetrator had been able to take advantage of a Republican-led effort to deregulate gun silencers.
Silencers, also known as suppressors, are accessories that attach to the end of firearms and soften the sound of gunfire by giving gases space to dissipate and cool after escaping from the muzzle. For the last 80 years, silencers have been restricted under the National Firearms Act, alongside weaponry like machine guns and sawed-off shotguns. Under federal law, buyers must first pay a $200 transfer fee and submit to fingerprinting and a federal background check, a process that can take around a year to complete.
GOP lawmakers are seeking to roll back those regulations with a bill that would remove silencers from the NFA and subject the devices to the less rigorous process that currently governs handgun sales.
Former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton invoked the Las Vegas shooting in a Monday tweet calling out the National Rifle Association for backing the measure.
Supporters say the proposal, attached to a broader package of legislation that had been expected to get a vote in the U.S. House in the coming weeks, is necessary to protect the hearing of hunters and recreational shooters who regularly expose themselves to high-volume gunfire. They point out that suppressors do not actually make gunshots silent, but do lower the volume enough to allow people to shoot comfortably without hearing protection.
But opponents say broader access to the accessories could make mass shootings more deadly. Suppressors minimize the noise and flash produced by firing a gun, allowing shooters to disguise their location.
“They make gunshots not sound like gunshots, so [it’s] harder to recognize what the sound is, and they make it harder to find the source of the sound, where the shooter is,” Lindsay Nichols, federal policy director of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told HuffPost. “In any kind of mass shooting, if the shooter had a silencer, it could be very devastating, it could interfere with the law enforcement response, it could make it harder for the potential victims to respond in ways that might reduce their chances of being hit.”
Law enforcement officials have also expressed concerns that guns equipped with silencers would be harder to detect with ShotSpotter technology, which alerts police to gunfire. Other gun control groups say silencers would inevitably fall into the wrong hands, because the bill would leave certain unlicensed sellers able to sell the devices without first conducting a background check.
“Do we want to live in a country where we accept the dangerous vision being peddled by the gun lobby, which just this week is pushing a policy that would make it easy for convicted felons and domestic abusers to buy gun silencers without a background check?” John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a statement. “Instead of pushing to vote on legislation that would gut silencer safety laws and put more lives at risk, our leaders should finally come together around common-sense gun laws that will keep people safe.”
Last month, the NRA called the silencer deregulation measure one of its “top legislative priorities.” Gun control groups have accused the gun industry and Republican supporters of pushing the effort in response to slumping gun sales over the first eight months of Donald Trump’s presidency, which had sent stock prices tumbling at some of the largest firearms manufacturers. Those stocks appeared to rebound briefly Monday morning, but slid back downward toward the end of the day.
Asked Monday about Clinton’s tweet and Trump’s position on the silencer legislation, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she hadn’t spoken to the president, but that she didn’t believe the Las Vegas shooting would affect the measure.
“Again, I think before we start trying to talk about the preventions of what took place last night, we need to know more facts,” she said. “And right now we’re simply not at that point. It’s very easy for Mrs. Clinton to criticize and to come out, but I think we need to remember the only person with blood on their hands is that of the shooter. And this isn’t a time for us to go after individuals or organizations. I think that we can have those policy conversations, but today is not the day.”
But gun control advocates say it’s impossible to ignore the potential repercussions of the deregulation effort. The first House committee hearing on silencers was postponed because it had been scheduled on the day of the congressional shooting in Alexandria, Virginia, this summer. When the hearing finally took place in September, former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent David Chipman testified that the Alexandria gunman could have done more damage if his rifle had been equipped with a silencer. Chipman now works as senior policy adviser for Americans for Responsible Solutions, the gun control group started by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).
Although gun control groups had expected the silencer deregulation measure to go to the floor sometime in the next two weeks, they now say members of Congress should reconsider.
“It is a very bad bill and a very bad idea,” said Nichols. “People are certainly paying attention to guns now and that will mean that hopefully people will realize that Congress is going in the wrong direction with this bill.”