Debate Over Gun 'Silencers' Resurfaces Following Virginia Beach Shooting

Opponents note silencers make it harder for potential victims and police to identify gunshots. Pro-gun advocates say they’re important hearing protection.

The mass shooting in Virginia Beach last week has reinvigorated the debate over the regulation of gun suppressors — also known as silencers — which muffle the sounds of gunfire.

The shooter behind the attack, which left 12 people dead on Friday, used a suppressor on his firearm. One survivor described the sounds of his weapon as something like a nail gun.

Gun-control advocates have argued that suppressors add to the threat of gun violence and have heavily criticized the National Rifle Association for its push to roll back regulations on them.

“Silencers put law enforcement and civilians at risk.” Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), who formerly served as Orlando’s chief of police, said Monday on Twitter. “The NRA’s embrace of them is a cynical cash-grab.”

“When people hear the sound of a gunshot, they know to run, hide or call the police,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said on Twitter. “Hearing and identifying a gunshot can mean the difference between life and death.”

On Sunday, when asked if silencers should be restricted, President Donald Trump said, “I don’t like them at all.”

Pro-gun advocates are quick to point out that suppressors — which reduce noise by 20 to 35 decibels — do not fully silence the sounds of gunfire, denying that they pose a threat to potential shooting victims. They insist that suppressors provide important ear protections to gun owners.

“A reminder that ‘silencer’ is a misnomer and they don’t silence the sound of firing by any means,” Dana Loesch, a spokeswoman for the NRA, said on Twitter in response to Trump’s comments.

Loesch’s comments echo a continued effort by pro-gun advocates to rebrand silencers as suppressors — in part an attempt to shift the image away from the weapons used by hitmen in Hollywood films. But with the recent attack fresh in the public’s mind, the idea of gun suppressors as merely ear protection may be a harder sell.

Demings and other gun-control advocates and lawmakers have argued that any reduction in noise can cause confusion over where the gunfire originates — a confusion that can be fatal.

“There’s clear evidence from the survivors in Virginia Beach that the shooter’s silencer made the attack harder to identify and avoid, potentially costing lives,” Demings told HuffPost. “Silencers make it harder for first responders and civilians to identify gunshots and respond quickly, and make it harder to track the location of shooters.”

At the federal level, suppressors are regulated under the National Firearms Act, and the process of obtaining one includes, among other things, an extensive background check that can take six to nine months. In eight states — California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island — and the District of Columbia, suppressors are outlawed entirely. A package of gun-control legislation, including a ban on suppressors, announced by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) could make his state the ninth.

Earlier this year, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) reintroduced the “Hearing Protection Act,” a bill that would roll back federal regulations on gun suppressors. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) reintroduced a similar bill, titled the “Silencers Help Us Save Hearing Act.” Both bills were referred to subcommittees following their introduction and no action has been taken on them since. 

A spokesman for Lee declined to comment on whether his stance had changed in light of the shooting. Spokespeople for King and Duncan did not respond to a request for comment.

“There’s no question here that there is a movement to make it easier to get suppressors,” Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary of homeland security, said in an interview with PBS. “Virginia Beach should be a sort of wakeup call, that that not only harms people who might be victims, but harms the ability for police to get in quickly and know where the sound is coming from.”