House Republicans on Thursday introduced a bill that would eliminate a federal tax on gun silencers and would weaken licensing requirements that currently make the devices more difficult to buy than most firearms.
The Hearing Protection Act of 2015, proposed by Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) and co-sponsored by 10 of his colleagues, would do this by removing silencers, which are also called suppressors, from the purview of the National Firearms Act, instead putting them in the same regulatory category as long guns. As its title suggests, the bill's sponsors are framing it as an effort to keep shooters from damaging their ears.
In 1934, in the wake of Prohibition-era violence carried out by heavily armed bootleggers and gangsters, sound-suppressing devices were included on a list of NFA weaponry and other hardware, alongside firearms like machine guns and short-barreled shotguns. Today, purchases of silencers are still subject to a $200 fee, which covers an extensive FBI background check that can take months to complete.
People looking to buy items covered by the NFA must also go through a specific federal registration process, which is more stringent than the one that governs gun purchases from a Federal Firearms License holder. To get a silencer, for example, a buyer must submit a certification from a local law enforcement official vouching that the silencer will be used for lawful purposes.
The penalties for possession of an unregistered silencer or other NFA hardware, or for using NFA equipment to commit a crime, are also significantly higher than for standard firearms.
However, Salmon's bill would make it as easy to obtain a silencer as it is to get any other gun or piece of equipment from a Federal Firearms License holder. The $200 fee would be removed, and anyone who paid the fee between Oct. 22 and the law's actual enactment would get a refund. The bill also includes a provision to nullify any state-specific registration or taxation on silencers.
Silencers are currently legal for civilian use in most states, though some places, like California and New York, still have bans on the books. A number of states only allow the use of silencers for certain purposes, like hunting. Minnesota lawmakers recently moved to legalize silencers.
Salmon's office did not return a request for comment.
The American Suppressor Association, a group that represents the silencer industry, said the legislation is a necessary response to federal restrictions. The ASA claimed those restrictions have primarily survived because of politics and emotion, not fact.
"Despite common Hollywood-based misconceptions, the laws of physics dictate that no suppressor will ever be able to render gunfire silent," the group wrote in a release Thursday. "Suppressors are simply mufflers for firearms, which function by trapping the expanding gasses at the muzzle, allowing them to slowly cool in a controlled environment. On average, suppressors reduce the noise of a gunshot by 20-35 decibels (dB), roughly the same sound reduction as earplugs or earmuffs."
Knox Williams, president and executive director of the ASA, said the group had worked alongside Salmon and the National Rifle Association in drafting the bill, in the belief that "citizens should not have to pay a tax to protect their hearing while exercising their Second Amendment rights."
In the past, the NRA had been hesitant to get into bed with manufacturers of silencers, largely due to image problems that have long plagued the devices. In 2013, Mother Jones reported on the history of modern silencers, going back to their creation in the late 1960s by a onetime CIA dark-ops contractor, as well as their early use by CIA death squads in Vietnam. The ASA was formed in 2011, suggesting that the silencer industry has lately taken more of an interest in public relations and political influence.
Supporters of stronger gun regulations regularly point to the potential hazards of making it easier for civilians to get hold of accessories that -- as manufacturers readily admit -- allow shooters to disguise their location by minimizing the noise and light produced by firing a gun. There's little evidence to suggest that silencers are used regularly in criminal activity, but there have been a number of cases in which gunmen, or would-be gunmen, were found to have used the devices or at least been in possession of them.
For example, Christopher Dorner, the former Los Angeles police officer who went on a killing spree in 2013, reportedly had a cache of weapons that included 10 silencers. In a manifesto laying out his plot, Dorner even argued that it was too easy for people like him to obtain this sort of equipment, which he claimed to have gotten by exploiting a loophole that allowed him to skirt a California law banning silencers. But authorities never presented evidence to suggest Dorner had used the silencers during his rampage.
Ladd Everett, director of communications for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, says manufacturers are simply making a financial calculation in the current push to make it cheaper and easier for people to get silencers, despite the potential for misuse.
"The NRA and gun industry view accessories like silencers as potential profit areas, with guns themselves so well-saturated throughout their existing customer base. That’s why we’ve seen this multi-state effort to weaken laws in this area, the obvious consequences for safety be damned," Everett told The Huffington Post. "It’s about profit, nothing else."
The market for silencers is growing rapidly, even with the current federal restrictions. According to data released earlier this year by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, there were nearly 800,000 silencers registered under the National Firearms Act as of February 2015 -- a 39 percent rise from 2014 numbers, which showed that 571,150 such devices were registered.
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