“He was only stopped finally because he did not have a silencer on his weapon. And the sound drew people to the place where he was ultimately stopped. Can you imagine what this would have been if he had silencers on these weapons?”
— Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), interview with The Washington Post, Oct. 2, 2017
In the wake of the mass shooting that left 58 dead and hundreds wounded in Las Vegas, Democrats have drawn attention to a GOP-backed bill that would streamline the purchase of suppressors — more popularly known as silencers — for firearms.
A House committee in September approved a bill that would no longer require a special license to own a suppressor; instead, purchasers would only need to undergo a federal background check. Advocates say the legislation is intended to help protect gun enthusiasts from hearing loss. A vote in the full House had been expected before the shooting, but House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said on Oct. 3 that there were no plans for a vote.
When we first saw Kaine’s interview, we thought he was making a point similar to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton — the suggestion that suppressors make guns quiet.
As we have explained before, that’s a movie myth. But Kaine’s staff says he knows this.
First of all, there are relatively few reports of suppressors being used in crimes. In 2015, 125 suppressors were recovered from crime scenes where a trace was requested by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) — when nearly 265,000 pistols, revolvers, rifles and shotguns were recovered. The Violence Policy Center, which opposes the proposed law, argues that this shows the success of current restrictions. “The limited information available suggests that the current regulation of silencers under the NFA is working to keep criminal use of the devices rare,” the group says.
Second, firearms — even with suppressors — generally are very loud.
A suppressor generally will reduce the sound of a weapon by an average 3o decibels, about the level of ear protection.
Hearing damage begins to occur at about 85 decibels, which is the sound of a hairdryer. Various reports have indicated that the Las Vegas shooter had AR-15-type rifles. A 30-decibel reduction means an AR-15 rifle would have a noise equivalent of 132 decibels. That is considered equivalent to a gunshot or a jackhammer. A .22-caliber pistol would be 116 decibels, which is louder than a 100-watt car stereo. In all likelihood, the noise level is actually higher.
It’s certainly not like the “whoosh” in the movies.
Suppressors, by diffusing the noise of a weapon, may make it more difficult to locate the source of a sound, which is why they often are used by military snipers. Kaine’s staff insists that, despite our initial impression of his statement, he is talking about this aspect of silencers.
Suppressors also can reduce most of “the flash” of a weapon, which preserves a shooter’s night vision and also helps hide location.
In Las Vegas, the gunman, Stephen Paddock, shot from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino at a crowd of 22,000 people gathered for the music festival hundreds of yards away. Already, given the distance and the echoes of the gunfire, it was difficult to locate the point of origin. But when Paddock started firing, scores of confused guests dialed the hotel operator, some wondering if there were fireworks outside.
Officials credited hotel security and the police for quickly locating the source of the noise, based on officer observations about the trajectory of the shots and information from the guest calls inside the hotel. That led officials to conclude the shots were coming from a room between the 29th and 32nd floors. Paddock then gave himself away when he fired at a security guard checking rooms on the 32nd floor, apparently because Paddock had set up remote video cameras to monitor the hallway.
Kaine’s staff, citing the raw audio of police communications that night, compiled an extensive timeline to demonstrate that the gunshots led the police to Paddock’s room. For instance, one police officer said: “I’m inside the Mandalay Bay on the 31st floor, I can hear the automatic fire coming from one floor ahead, one floor above us.”
Kaine staff also noted the story of a guest two floors below who reported the sounds of weapons fire. “I could just hear the gunshots. Continuously. Just full automatic,” said Chris Bethel, an Iraq War veteran. “There’s explosions going off. It was like, a bomb just went off, man. And then there were more gunshots.”
But given that AR-15 rifles, even with suppressors, are as loud as jackhammers, this does not demonstrate that the gunman was “only stopped” because he did not have a suppressor, as Kaine asserted.
“Senator Kaine was making the case that the gunman was stopped when he was because the police were able to locate him on the 32nd floor of the hotel based on the sound of the gunshots,” said spokeswoman Sarah Peck.
The Pinocchio Test
Kaine should be more careful when talking about weapons, especially during a national tragedy. We will accept his staff’s explanation that he meant that silencers muffle a gunshot’s source, even though his phrasing certainly sounded like he meant that silencers actually made firearms quiet. Regular readers know we don’t try to play gotcha here at The Fact Checker.
But in any case, the evidence does not support Kaine’s claim that the shooter was “only stopped” because he did not have suppressors on his weapons. That’s exaggerated and could leave a misleading impression on people only familiar with silencers in the movies. The crowd under attack might have had trouble establishing the location of the shooter if he had silencers, but he fired from a hotel filled with guests who almost certainly would have heard 132 decibels from the floors above and below the attack.
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