The discussion regarding the deregulation of silencers (suppressors if you insist on using the more politically correct term) has traveled quite the roller coaster path in the last few months. Staying as clear from partisan politics as possible, the election result was a surprise to most on each side. In the end, gun rights proponents had a blast of exuberance with an NRA-endorsed President Elect. Part of that excitement included hope for the newest iteration of the Hearing Protection Act (HPA) which would remove silencers from the National Firearms Act regulations.
However, along with riding the wave of positivity came some irrational thought processes. Getting a bill signed into law is a long, hard fought process that takes months if not years of work, lobbying and constituent support. And that goes double for a bill that is controversial enough to take on the deregulation of certain firearms. (We’ve talked about how these metal tubes known as silencers are actually classified as firearms in the United States, right?).
I say silencers are controversial because the majority of the American population believes that suppressors are specifically used by spies, gangsters or crazed hitmen. This stems mostly from Hollywood “pew pew” depictions of suppressed firearms.
Shootout Scene – With Silencers – Assault on precinct 13:
The full scene. WARNING: It’s graphic. (Thanks EB)
From November 2016 through February 2017, something happened among a small but vocal part of the gun community. With a pro-gun president in the White House and an ultra-pro gun President’s son at his side, firearms enthusiasts made some incorrect assumptions. The first being that positive firearm legislation would be a top priority of the administration. And the other being that bills like the HPA would somehow be fast tracked into law.
Again, steering away from any ‘D’ vs ‘R’ arguments, no matter what side you are on, pro-gun laws are not a huge priority at the moment. And hoping a bill like the HPA would be signed into law In days and not months or longer is inconsistent with almost all past experiences.
But, this ‘irrational exuberance’ about the timelines for silencer deregulation didn’t just come from gun owners. A leaked ATF white paper in early February helped to fan the flames that the HPA becoming law as a sure thing:
While DOJ and ATF have historically not supported removal of items from the NFA, the change in public acceptance of silencers arguably indicates that the reason for their inclusion in the NFA is archaic and historical reluctance to removing them from the NFA should be reevaluated.
Heck, even I got excited about that statement. That’s the first positive sentiment from a government official I’ve seen towards silencer deregulation in, well, forever. But, it is important to remember that his was the thoughts of one person, not an agency or an administration. In fact, a few weeks later, the ATF informed Dead Air Silencers that the single rubber wipe used in their Ghost M pistol can was a silencer part and replacements could no longer be sold over the counter. May I remind you that under federal law any individual silencer parts are actually silencers and that silencers are actually firearms even though they are not capable of firing any type of ammunition.
“So what, it’s great that everyone has a positive outlook on the HPA”. Sure, being positive is awesome, however when firearms consumers start basing their actions on virtual hopes and dreams, the industry itself (and the individuals who support it) is going to suffer. A few weeks ago I had the chance to speak with Evan Green, one of the owners of Griffin Armament, a Wisconsin based silencer and firearms manufacturer. Green had just laid off 30% of his employees based on decreased orders for his products. He places the blame squarely on the belief by some buyers that the HPA will quickly pass in to law.
Annoyed by paperwork and the added $200 tax, some of those interested in purchasing suppressors have decided to wait for deregulation. The folly of this stance is that it hinges upon the fact that the HPA becoming law is a done deal, which is obviously not the case. It also places manufacturers, distributors and dealers under the gun because decreased revenue from those waiting on the sidelines means less money for research and design, stagnating technological advances.
Griffin isn’t the only manufacturer who has been forced to layoff employees. Just two weeks after the 2017 SHOT Show, Utah–based SilencerCo released an unknown number of employees apparently because of reduced revenue projections. The company has not commented publicly on the layoffs, leaving only conjecture on the reasons as well as the circumstances leading up to the reduction. But the ‘HPA factor’ most likely had some role in their business decisions.
I also had the opportunity to speak to Owen Miller, Director of Outreach for The American Suppressor Association (ASA) about the recent events within the industry as well as consumer confidence. Miller acknowledges that some buyers may be waiting for the HPA to become law before buying more (or any) suppressors. Like many in the industry, Miller says we are also seeing the after effects of ATF 41F, a rule that was finally implemented on July 13, 2016, requiring every NFA applicant, including entities like trusts, to submit fingerprints, photographs and undergo a background check prior to receiving transfer or making approvals.
In a race to file NFA paperwork by the July deadline, the industry underwent an boom in sales and revenue. After the new rules went into effect, however, new purchases slowed to a trickle. In fact, one source of information revealed that the number of ATF transfers initiated in the month prior to the July 13th deadline is equal to all the number of forms submitted in the last eight months combined.
The ASA has come under fire as of late because of implications that they had projected the HPA as a done deal, leaving some consumers to wait for a hassle free/tax free silencer purchase. Miller explained that the ASA did not advertise the passage of the HPA within the first 100 days of the new administration. He did say that the organization is in a difficult spot: they need to be optimistic and upbeat to generate interest and motivate individuals to take action, without generating unrealistic expectations that have an impact on present day business.
Casting doubts on the ASA’s effectiveness, pointed negative statements made in an anonymous letter sent to and posted at ModernRifleman.net started to twist the HPA’s outlook:
The ASA has acted irresponsibly against the interest of its donors and the consumers by giving the non-informed consumer public false hope of early passing of the bill, which at the present time is not even remotely likely to pass. This misinformation to the general public has been a very destructive force in the suppressor industry causing many if not all companies to disrupt American families who depended on them due to industry wide lay-offs. Quality and innovation, which bring products to market that consumers want to buy are in peril due to massive industry setbacks caused by the irresponsibility of the ASA.
There was also a rumored (but not confirmed) “contentious” ASA Board of Directors meeting at this year’s SHOT Show. Eventually the ASA issued a statement. The full letter can be found here.
And while the stagnation in ATF submissions will surely (hopefully) drop wait times down to a trickle, everyone from manufactures all the way down to consumers will suffer in terms of product availability and advancement. Couple the post 41F dip with the HPA “fast track” inaccuracies and we arrive to where we are right now: Not exactly doom and gloom, but definitely a forecast for cloudy weather.
Tom Bowers of iconic silencer manufacturer Bowers Group is someone I turn to when I’m looking for an honest take on the happenings within the suppressor industry. I spent a few hours on the phone with Bowers and his partner Dorothy talking a bit about the past, present and future state of affairs of the firearms muffler business. Together they believe most of what we are all experiencing is sluggishness from the 41F fallout. And yes, the HPA, to a lesser degree, is effecting sales.
However, Bowers’ main concern revolves around the eventual removal of silencers out from under the NFA. Obviously he is in favor of full deregulation, but is concerned about some states laws after silencers are no longer seen as Title II firearms. Many states rely on laws that prevent prosecution for the possession of NFA items based on providing proof of federal registration. In essence, the potential for months of legal quagmire exists if by some magical chance the HPA passes as written.
I use the term “magical” alongside the passage of the HPA for good reason. A independent study done by legislative consultants suggests that the HPA has a less than 1% chance of passage. As sad as that outlook is, it’s a fact that silencer buyers as well as potential customers should come to embrace.
That’s not to say that we should give up. If you want the HPA to become law, you should have already called, written and emailed your legislators by now. And we should all continue to do so – simply signing an online petition will do nothing to further our cause.
However, for the foreseeable future, we should all get comfortable with paying our tax, submitting our forms and waiting (painfully) for approval. If you are a first time buyer, I can assure you the wait for your initial stamp is the worst – It does get better.
Although adding a suppressor to your guns does have some small downsides, it really is a game changer for recreational shooters, hunters, tactical operations and home defense. Yes, sometimes you still have to wear hearing protection, but the negatives are far outweighed by the increases in your enjoyment of shooting and the enjoyment of those around you. Having the ability to engaged in a normal conversation with your friends/family while plinking at the range is a good motivator.
As for the future, I really have no idea where we are going from here. And anybody who tells you they know exactly how this will all play out is misinformed or they are lying. I like to remind people in my reviews that I am neither an expert in everything silencer-related nor am I an “industry insider”. I’m just a guy who loves to shoot quietly and listens to both industry leaders and consumers when they are willing to talk.
My suggestion is to proceed forward on the assumption that the Hearing Protection Act will not pass anytime soon. Actually, be pleasantly surprised if it ever does pass. Write and call your congressman. And if there is a suppressor that you are interested in buying, don’t wait. The transfer process is simple and worth it for the pure joy that comes from suppressed shooting.