Why Silencers Aren’t Golden

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NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Va. Photo by Joe Loong via Flickr

If you heard that a proposed law was entitled the “Hearing Protection Act,” you might believe the law was intended, say, to strengthen protections for the hearing of workers exposed to high noise levels on the job or to require healthcare plans to cover the costs of auditory tests.

As reasonable as those assumptions may be, they’re wrong.

The Hearing Protection Act of 2017 is actually a bill being lobbied for by the National Rifle Association and the American Suppressor Association—who even knew such an organization existed!—which aims to loosen restrictions on access to silencers for guns.

Their argument in favor of easy access to silencers (which they refer to as “suppressors”) isn’t based on the Second Amendment but on health concerns. Their claim is that gun owners need silencers so they don’t go deaf from the noise made by their firearms.

If passed, the Act would:

  • Eliminate a $200 transfer tax on silencers;
  • Treat anyone who acquires or possesses a silencer as meeting any registration or licensing requirements under the National Firearms Act (essentially eliminating the need to undergo fingerprinting and a federal background check); and
  • Amend federal criminal law to preempt state or local laws that tax or regulate silencers.

Presumably, President Trump would happily sign the Act into law. His son Donald Trump Jr. is a key backer of the bill. In a recent speech to the NRA, the president himself declared an end to the “eight-year assault” on gun rights.

Yes, guns are noisy. For example, a study of noise levels at a firing range found that, during most training exercises, firearms instructors were exposed to peak sound pressure levels greater than 150 decibels, which exceeds NIOSH’s recommended limit of 140 decibels.

Although silencers don’t completely suppress the sound of a gunshot, they do muffle it. (On the NPR website, you can hear what several kinds of guns sound like both with and without silencers.)

Yes, continual exposure to loud noises such as gunfire can irrevocably damage your hearing, causing conditions such as noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus.

But gun owners already have easy access to suitable hearing protection: earplugs and earmuffs. Even the American Suppressor Association acknowledges, “Suppressors reduce the noise of a gunshot by an average of 20–35 dB, which is roughly the same as earplugs or earmuffs.”

In addition, hearing experts advocate the use of hearing protection by anyone firing a gun.

For example, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) doesn’t recommend the use of suppressors to minimize hearing loss from firearms noise. Instead, it advises the use of appropriate hearing protective devices, such as earmuffs or earplugs.

Similarly, a position statement by the National Hearing Conservation Association (NHCA) explains that the use of a suppressor doesn’t eliminate the risk of noise-induced hearing loss; it only reduces the risk by reducing the intensity of the sound emission.

So, manufacturers can’t guarantee that use of silencers alone will prevent hearing loss. As a result, the NHCA recommends that consumers wear hearing protection whenever shooting firearms—including when using a silencer.

Of course, earplugs and earmuffs are only effective if shooters actually wear them.

However, studies have shown that only about half of shooters wear hearing protection all the time when target practicing, says the ASHA. Hunters are even less likely to wear hearing protection because they say they can’t hear approaching game or other noises. But the organization notes that there are many products that let shooters hear softer sounds while still protecting them from loud sounds such as gunfire.

Simply put, we shouldn’t make silencers easier to get just because gun owners can’t be bothered to use the hearing protection already available to them. Instead of advocating for easier access to silencers, the NRA would be better served by upping its efforts to encourage gun owners to wear earplugs and/or earmuffs whenever they shoot their guns.

The hearing protection argument is just a smokescreen. The NRA is reflexively against any measure that it perceives as limiting in any way the rights of gun owners to have access to any and all guns—and gun accessories—that they want.

Although silencers may provide increased protection of the hearing of shooters, they arguably undercut overall public health and safety.

The sound of gunfire alerts people that someone is firing a weapon nearby and that they should take suitable precautions. If that sound is muffled, people may be unaware that they’re in danger and thus not take cover.

In addition, the sound of gunfire may drive individuals to call the police, alerting authorities to a possible crime or accidental shooting. But if a gun has a silencer, no one may hear it when it’s fired and so someone in need of medical attention may not get it in time.

Moreover, if the sound of a gunshot is suppressed, it may not trigger gunshot alert systems, such as the ShotSpotter System used by various police departments including the NYPD.

Of course, the NRA contends that silencers aren’t frequently used by criminals. However, loosened restrictions on this equipment may result in an increase in their use in crimes.

Robin Barton

In short, I believe that unless you’re a spy, an assassin or the like, there’s no legitimate reason to have a silencer for a gun.

If the NRA has its way, gun owners across the country will not only be able to carry concealed weapons practically anywhere, but also to silence those weapons. If that prospect doesn’t make you nervous, it should.

Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.

13 thoughts on “Why Silencers Aren’t Golden

  1. In your article you state “Although silencers don’t completely suppress the sound of a gunshot, they do muffle it.” At the end you state “If the NRA has its way, gun owners across the country will not only be able to carry concealed weapons practically anywhere, but also to silence those weapons.”
    How can you acknowledge that suppressors do not silence a gun, then use the silence myth as an argument against this bill?
    Your remark about only assassins and the like are the only people with legitimate reasons to own a suppressor is sickening. Assassination is illegal in the US and I would bet most other civilized cultures. To say that is a legitimate reason for anything is sickening.
    According to the ATF there are 1.3 million suppressors in the US. only .003% have ever been used in a crime of any kind. Bad guys do not care about suppressors. If they did we would see them using them in crime.
    The current law is a simple money grab. There is no reason for the $200 tax. Also the people who work on issuing those stamps are so over loaded it takes almost a year to process the paperwork for a stamp.
    In the future please just state that you are anti gun ownership and let that be a reason for your arguments. Trying to find a logical reason to justify your emotional position has caused you to contradict yourself, claim assassination is legitimate and ignore crime statistics.

  2. Hmmmm. Criminals already have access to “silencers”. Why? Because they’re CRIMINALS! Laws don’t apply to criminals – until they’re caught. If suppressors were a big advantage to criminals, they would already be using them. That’s a no brainer.

  3. Your diatribe completely ignores England – where ‘silencers’ have been completely legal and unrestricted for many years. You don’t even need any kind of permit to purchase them. Where are the criminals running around using suppressors? (Clue – you don’t). Your great concern for the misuse of firearms using ‘silencers’ is simply a product of your imagination – and doesn’t exist in reality.

    Further, you also completely ignore the fact that ‘silencers’ are completely legal and unrestricted in the United States – for air guns. These are not toys, but powerful air guns for hunting. Where are the criminals abusing air guns with suppressors? (Clue – they don’t exist)

    Do your research instead of writing whatever pops into your head.

  4. This article is absolutely ridiculous. Did it ever occur to you that wearing ear protection and having a suppressor will decrease the risk of hearing damage even more? Like you said, hearing protection only decreases the sound report by about 25dB; if someone shoots a lot or frequents gun ranges, this can and WILL cause hearing damage over time. Having the suppressor not only completely eliminates the risk of hearing damage when compounded with hearing protection, but also protect the hearing of people who do not have their hearing protection on right, or simply forgot to put it on.

    Also your speculation on what “may” happen is pointless. The ShotSpotter “may” not detect the gun shot. People “may” not hear the gun shots of a mass shooting in progress (which are statistically less likely to happen than being struck by lightening). Can we deal in facts please? Suppressors only lower the noise level marginally, and only suppresses the sound of the exploding powder. The bullet will still leave the barrel, break the sound-barrier and make a distinctive “CRACK”.

    Suppressors don’t seem to be a public health issue in New Zealand, Finland, or Czech Republic, where they aren’t nearly as tightly regulated.

  5. Your response to the NRA’s efforts to make suppressors easier and cheaper to get proves a few things about you that aren’t very pretty.

    First, you are a liberal. Not just because you are a “former” ADA in NY, but because of your inability to see/think logically. You are so eager to tear into the NRA or “hunters” because of your closed-mindset to “all guns—and gun accessories”, that is sad that you live in fear.

    Next, you are NOT very educated. You may have a degree in something, but it is obvious common-sense was not a prerequisite. Suppressors, or silencers, do much more than lower the noise level to prevent ear damage. Which, by the way, is NOT very low – you can still hear the gun shot from a good distance. Suppressors stabilize the barrel of the gun because of the added weight. The “can”, being screwed to the end of the barrel, out in front of the shooter causes the extra few ounces to hold the barrel steady. This Ms. Barton, allows for better aiming, better shots, and safer shooting. As for your reckless comment about Americans carrying concealed handguns, and that they’d be suppressed – rest easy, suppressors are generally too big to carry on a concealed weapon. Your argument is laughable.

    Third, I take offense to your comment “unless you’re a spy, an assassin or the like, there’s no legitimate reason to have a silencer”. I guess if there needed to be one sentence to prove your agenda, this would be it. I own and use a pistol with a suppressor – I AM NOT a spy or an assassin (and, YOU watch too much TV). Actually, I do not even hunt with a gun. I’m glad you are no longer an ADA, as I’m sure NY citizens are.

    Lastly, weapons ARE necessary for protection, I wish that was not the case. I’m not foolish enough to think if someone breaks into my home at 2am, that a police officer on the other side of town is going to help me much. When I pull my gun out to protect my family, I’d rather NOT be worried about the deafening sound that will fill my hallway and ears. Do you realize the amount of noise firing a firearm indoors makes? A suppressed gun is still loud, but is less likely to damage my ears, or those of my wife and child.

    FYI: I am an ex-deputy sheriff, former private investigator, I’m self employed, married, and hold a Masters degree in criminal justice. God Bless America.

  6. Unfortunately, we live in an age where we can give knee-jerk reactions at lightning speed. Tweeter, internet, or texts… just like a bullet, once you hit the button, you can’t call it back!

    I sent my response to the article just minute ago, before rereading it… I wish I had left the barbs out. Otherwise, I stand by my reply. My mama taught me to be a nicer person then that; again I apologize to Ms. Barton for the barbs.

  7. Really? The only thing laws against silencers do is prevent law abiding citizens from using them. Silencers are super easy to make, so laws against them will stop no criminal from using one.

  8. So… rather than simply using a device that will make a gunshot hearing safe for everyone around, you’d rather count on everyone around wearing earmuffs to protect their hearing? Say a police officer needs to discharge his firearm in public to prevent further harm, what about the bystanders who don’t have hearing protection? Or when people are hiking/camping where others are hunting nearby — they should be required to wear hearing protection for their own safety too?

    As a 40-year old who suffers from hearing loss (even before I became a recreational shooter) and wears hearing aids, I take any further loss very seriously. When I shoot, I wear earplugs under my earmuffs. I want all the protection I can get.

    Sustained exposure to anything above 85 dbs (traffic, motorcycles) will cause hearing loss. Any noise above ~120 dbs (sirens) will instantly cause some amount of hearing loss. A rifle shot (160 dbs) suppressed by a high-end silencer (-30 dbs) brings the sound down to 130 dbs, which still is really loud and not really hearing safe. I would greatly prefer if everyone at the range all shot at 20-30 dbs less than they currently do. It would mean that with hearing protection on, I am “only” subjected to a constant din of 100-110 dbs sounds.

    I won’t reiterate the arguments for why NFA laws don’t prevent crime. As someone already said above, they’re called CRIMINALS for a reason. A large majority of the veterans in our special forces (those who regularly have to discharge their weapons) suffer from substantial hearing loss. To say that the Hearing Protection Act doesn’t have some merit in this regard is just empty air from someone who has no real experience or understanding of guns and even a looser understanding of crime.

  9. As others have pointed out, the logic contradictions in this article are kind of mind boggling as especially coming from someone who purportedly worked at the District Attorney’s office of Manhattan as an ADA. (Makes me feel bad for Manhattan if her credentials are real.) But I guess that may be why she’s a former ADA.

    [Editors of The Crime Report] might want to consider that this quality of writing really makes your publication look more like a political shill rather than one for serious analysis of crime, which was what I was looking for, coming across your site.

  10. The entire article is laughable. This “argument”, if you could even call it that, is based in fear and ignorance. 2A was written to stand the test of time and endure any and all advancements in technology. Our forefathers wanted citizens to be armed as well or better than any other military in the world. The words “shall not be infringed…” are not open to interpretation and the current $200 tax and 8-12 month wait time for NFA items is unconstitutional. Please remember that our entire constitution and bill of rights will fall apart without 2A and although I respect your right to NOT carry a firearm please do not infringe on my rights. Also you should keep in mind before you bash gun owners, that nearly any one of us would risk our lives for you, your family or any other person if , God forbid, the need should arise.

  11. Everytown for Gun Safety: Spreading More Lies

    Everytown for Gun Safety, Everytown.org, is out there…er, out there deliberately misrepresenting the facts again… i.e. LYING!

    This time it’s about the pending legislation that would remove firearm suppressors from the same classification as machine guns and other classes of devices under the National Firearms Act (NFA). Most people more commonly refer to these devices as “silencers”. The only knowledge most people have about this subject has been gleaned from popular culture through the media. And, like Everytown, reality doesn’t apply. Allow me to dissect and CORRECT Everytown’s ignorance and misrepresentations.

    Take this from their Chief Researcher, Paul Joseph Goebbels…er, “Research Division.” “…radical legislation would repeal all federal laws on firearm silencers, making it legal for convicted felons, domestic abusers, and other people with dangerous histories to buy silencers.”

    This is a flat-out LIE. Not ignorance, just a BIG FAT Lie. The delisting of suppressors would result in these devices being treated the SAME as a firearm. And unlike buying a firearm, the hurdles are much higher and much more expensive to purchase a suppressor. So, no, it would NOT make it legal for people who are prohibited from purchasing a firearm to purchase or possess a suppressor, apparently, an inconvenient “truth.”

    They continue by stating that “The federal laws have kept silencers out of the hands of criminals for decades, without blocking access to law—abiding citizens.” Uh, Yeah…right. Correct only if criminals go to a Class III firearms Dealer, spends hundreds or thousands of dollars to purchase a suppressor that they can’t remove from the Dealer’s shop until said criminal fills out a bunch of paperwork, passes a Background Check, and provide a Passport photo. Not done yet! Then, there’s the $200 check made out to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms for the “Tax Stamp”. Then the paperwork and money, are sent to the BATF! Then, we wait and wait and wait and wait some more. Somewhere between 4 and 9 months later, the purchaser receives a letter from BATF saying “okay” or “no-go.” Obviously, this efficient process doesn’t cause any undue burden on “law-abiding citizens.”

    According to EVERYTOWN’s crack researchers, “…silencers are not the most effective or the safest way to do so. Widely available ear protection products work better than silencers to protect hearing and safety — which is why the U.S. military relies on them, not on silencers, to protect soldiers’ hearing.” I wonder how much they pay their “researchers” for inaccurate “research?” Inside the ear canal “ear plugs” are never adequate hearing protection for one’s hearing. Virtually every package of ear plugs states that ear muffs should ALSO be used in conjunction with the ear plugs. And there are, in fact, times when normal hearing protection techniques are dangerous to the shooter hunter or military personnel. Hunting season can be dangerous and in a wood full of hunters one requires all of his senses, especially his hearing. Same issue in the military. With communication being the most important asset on the battlefield and with the myriad of communication devices being used, ear plugs don’t fit into the equation, as a U.S. Army veteran myself, I can attest to the fact that suppressors are STANDARD issue to all sniper teams. Apparently, EVERYTOWN’s researchers are not military combat veterans nor hunters. Next Lie-

    “Silencers in the wrong hands create serious public safety risks.

    The loud and distinctive noise that a gun makes is one of its most important safety features: when people hear it, they realize they may need to run, hide, or protect others.
    In mass shootings, being able to hear and identify the gunshots can mean the difference between life and death.”
    The first point from my point of view as a former law enforcement officer is total B.S. The general public can’t tell a car back-fire from a firecracker or an actual gunfire. Experience and testimony from individuals involved in a public shooting often say they heard a “bang” and thought it was a firecracker or they didn’t realize it was gunfire until later or when they see someone on the ground or actually see the gunman. As far as “no one “heard the gunshot(s)”, suppressors only suppress a few decibels. The suppressor is only half of the equation. In order to get the full benefit “sub-sonic” ammunition which is not only difficult to find, most often, it must be ordered. And, sub-sonic ammunition is VERY expensive for your “law-abiding” citizen. I’ve never seen nor heard or ANY average dirtbag criminal going through the bureaucratic and expense of obtaining and using a suppressor in a mass shooting…ever. In reference to their second point, reread this paragraph.

    The brain surgeons in research offer more words of “wisdom.” They state that…

    “The SHUSH Act would make it harder for law enforcement to solve crimes.

    Under the bill, the Justice Department would be forced to destroy existing records that can help law enforcement officers solve gun crimes, catch dangerous criminals, and protect communities.”

    This completely ludicrous since suppressors offer NO forensic value at all in a death investigation. Suppressors are nothing more than a smaller version of a car muffler that fits on the end of the gun. A bullet fired from a suppressed weapon NEVER touches the inside of a suppressor, therefore it offers NOTHING to any ballistic examination. As stated previously, criminals can’t purchase suppressors, it’s difficult enough for EVERYTOWN’s “law-abiding” citizens.

    And, One More Lie from your friendly Anti-gun group EVERYTOWN…

    “The SHUSH Act would block states from enforcing their own laws regarding silencers.

    Under the legislation, state and local policymakers who have carefully crafted their own laws to keep silencers out of the wrong hands would be blocked from enforcing many of those protections, and from making new ones.”

    Completely UNTRUE…Who would’ve seen that one coming? Removal of suppressors from the NFA list would have NO effect on existing State laws. In the handful of States where suppressors are illegal to possess, laws would NOT change due to a change in federal law. However, law makers and the citizens of those states could change said laws if deemed appropriate for them through their legislative process.

    I know that I left out one or two other fallacious arguments (LIES) because they’re predictable and frankly, I lose more brain cells with every paragraph I read from these LIARS. I call upon everyone to educate themselves on the subject of suppressors. Visit YOUTUBE, there, you will learn all you need to know.

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