Good morning everyone and thank you for joining us for episode #76 of TFB’s Silencer Saturday. Unfortunately, we will take a break from our regular technical and review content to discuss firearm suppressors in the news. As always, I’ll do my very best to stay away from partisan politics as well as drama and sensationalism. But, unlike some media reports on the functionality of silencers, we will stick to the facts as we know them – even though this is obviously a subject that is close to my heart.
The question of the legality, and strangely “lethality”, of suppressors has been raised by public figures and the media in recent days. So let’s talk about the topic from a position of quantifiable knowledge and facts.
SILENCER SATURDAY #76: Firearm Suppressors In The Crosshairs
On Friday, May 31, a suspected criminal used two .45 caliber pistols to murder a dozen people and injure several others. Semi-official reports state that one of the handguns was equipped with a legally obtained suppressor. The exact make and model of the silencer and firearm is unknown at this time. Besides, those specifics aren’t important to the overall discussion.
The question is, did using a suppressor offer the shooter a tactical advantage over an unsuppressed pistol?
The honest answer is, maybe.
As we have discussed numerous times in the past, silencers don’t actually silence the report of a firearm. Aside from rimfire setups, using a suppressor on a firearm can only be described as quiet when we are talking in relative terms to unsuppressed gunshots. While a suppressed centerfire handgun is quieter in terms of protecting the shooter and other people in the vicinity of the actual shooting, it is less effective at masking the gunshots as a different noise altogether.
What ends lives? Gunfire.
What saves lives? The sound of gunfire.
But details of the rampage include one fact unique to the growing list of active-shooter cases: the assailant used a .45-caliber handgun with extended magazines and a barrel suppressor. This small detail — that the loaded gun was fitted with simple, and lawful, “silencing” equipment — threatens to upend how we understand and train for active-shooter cases in the future.
But the Virginia Beach killer seemed to want the anonymity of silence, a tool of the coward, not one seeking fame or a blaze of glory. None of the videos or manifestos we’ve seen from New Zealand to Las Vegas appear to be part of the Virginia Beach story. The killer wanted silence.
Juliette Kayyem is a former assistant secretary of homeland security and is faculty chair of the homeland security program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
The fact is, the typical American’s experience with the sound of gunfire actually comes from movies and television – not real life. Even those who are recreational shooters wear hearing protection and rarely hear a naked gunshot. Coupled with the fact that active shooter situations are surprise events where no one is expecting to hear gunfire, distinguishing between unknown sounds takes time and mental processing – both of which can be distorted during a traumatic event. Not to mention that an enclosed space like an office will further distort the sound of a gun being fired.
In short, the overwhelming majority of Americans will have difficulty discerning gunshots in a surprise situation – whether or not the firearm is equipped with a suppressor.
This is the concern we were talking about when Republicans were trying to deregulate silencers as ‘ear protection,’” said David Chipman, a retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and now the senior policy adviser with Giffords, a gun-control lobbying group.
“Especially on a handgun, a suppressor will distort the sound in such a way that it would not immediately be recognizable as gunfire to people who sort of know what that sound is.”
Nicknamed “cans,” the devices were invented in the early 1900s by MIT-educated Hiram Percy Maxim, who also invented a muffler for gasoline engines. They were brought under NFA regulations after Depression-era game wardens expressed concern that hunters would use them to poach.
A suppressor does not eliminate the sound a gun makes but generally diminishes it by 20 to 35 decibels, leaving most guns still louder than your average ambulance siren.
However, using firearm suppressors can be less disorienting to the shooter over unsuppressed firearms, allowing for better concentration and focus. The shooter likely chose a suppressed pistol for the reason that shooting any firearm indoors will be an uncomfortable experience. On the other hand, a phenomenon known as auditory exclusion can create a temporary loss of hearing during times of high stress. As such, it is very likely that shooters and victims alike already block out the sound of gunfire during a traumatic event.
PORTSMOUTH, England—President Trump said he doesn’t like gun silencers and was open to considering a ban on the devices after one was used in a mass shooting last week in Virginia.
“I don’t like them,” Mr. Trump said in an interview that aired Wednesday morning on ITV’s “Good Morning Britain.” Asked if he would like to ban silencers, he said, “I would like to think about it” before quickly adding, “I don’t love the idea of it.
For a person to buy a silencer, which reduces firearm noise by 20 to 35 decibels, the National Firearms Act currently requires fingerprints and photographs, a fee and a background check that can take up to a year. States also have varying restrictions on the devices, also known as suppressors.
Next comes the logistics of carrying a suppressed weapon. To be effective as hearing protection, most pistol silencers range from 6-12” long in addition to the length of the barrel and host weapon profile. Pistols, by design, are meant to be concealable, with an average length of about six inches. Adding eight or even ten inches to the end of a pistol means that it is now the size of a small rifle and is unlikely to fit in a holster or be concealed in a traditional manner. Logistically, carrying around a suppressed pistol is not an easy task and can eliminate the element of surprise, effect maneuverability, and limit concealment.
In addition, practically speaking, the current process to legally purchase and transfer a silencer is pushing 12 months. This means that either the alleged shooter in the most recent murders was extremely calculating and patient, or owned firearm suppressors for lawful reasons and later opportunistically used one for a criminal act.
‘The nation is watching’: Virginia governor orders special session on gun control after Virginia Beach shootings
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ordered a special legislative session to address gun violence Tuesday, four days after a public works employee killed 12 people in a shooting rampage at a municipal building in Virginia Beach.
“The nation is watching,” Northam said at a new conference. “We must do more than give our thoughts and prayers. We must give Virginians the action they deserve.”
Northam said he would seek universal background checks, bans on assault weapons and suppressors, extreme-risk protective orders, child access prevention and other restrictions.
The reality is that the use of firearm suppressors in violent crime is an extremely rare event. Since they are meant as hearing protection, they have little benefits for committing a crime. As we discussed above, besides being expensive, they are unwieldy, difficult to obtain and require special features like a threaded barrel that are not commonly found on most handguns.
The ATF confirmed that silencers are rarely used in crimes despite their explosion in popularity. The agency has only recommended prosecutions for 44 silencer-related crimes per year over the past decade. That means roughly .003 percent of silencers are used in crimes each year. Of those 44 crimes per year, only 6 involved defendants with prior felony convictions.
Consistent with this low number of prosecution referrals, silencers are very rarely used in criminal shootings,” Turk wrote. “Given the lack of criminality associated with silencers, it is reasonable to conclude that they should not be viewed as a threat to public safety necessitating [National Firearms Act] classification, and should be considered for reclassification under the [Gun Control Act].
But, the suspected shooter chose a firearm suppressor when they allegedly carried out the murders last week. So here we are, defending the right and ability to own metal tubes. The sad fact remains, any object is deadly in the hands of someone intent on causing harm. Be it a gun, baseball bat, knife or a length of rope.
A few years ago I might have suggested taking a non-shooter to a range with a suppressor and showing them the realities (and benefits) of silencers. However, gun ownership, now specifically suppressor ownership, is in the crosshairs of mainstream media and some government officials. The time for arguing facts, evaluating data or other attempts to differentiate responsible owners from criminals or mentally ill individuals is over. Preconceived notions, stereotypes and intentionally misconstrued information is now equal to the rule of law.
Firearm suppressors – What now?
Don’t panic – good advice for every stressful situation. We need to stay united as American NFA owners. Keep buying, transferring and owning suppressors. Support organizations who support unrestricted ownership by all citizens, free from caveats. The goal is, and always should be, NFA deregulation – we should not lower our bar because of one heinous act.
By default, the silencer industry in America is supported purely by American businesses. From manufacturers all the way down to dealers, tens of thousands of jobs support and grow an industry that cannot be outsourced to other countries. Let’s make these facts clear when you write your elected officials in support of suppressor ownership.
Thank you for reading. Stay safe, have fun and we’ll see you next week for TFB’s Silencer Saturday.
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