IF THERE has ever been a more benignly titled legislative proposal than the Hearing Protection Act, now before Congress, we can’t think of it. Who could possibly oppose a measure to help Americans avoid deafness? Well, we might — because this ostensible public health bill is being promoted by the National Rifle Association in an effort to undo federal restrictions on the ownership of gun silencers, one of the oldest and most effective firearms controls on the books. Fearing gangsters and assassins, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration classified silencers as firearms and required purchasers to pay a fee (now $200), on top of the silencer’s purchase price (now in the hundreds of dollars). There are some 300 million guns in private hands but only about 900,000 silencers registered as of last year.
The Hearing Protection Act’s supporters argue that current strictures harm lawful gun owners by denying them an effective means of muffling dangerous noise. And it’s true: Gunshots are loud, generally louder than the 140-decibel limit for “impulse noises” set by federal occupational safety and health authorities. Audiologists have found that hunters’ risk of significant high-frequency hearing loss increases by seven percent for every five years they hunt. Yet the sound of gunfire also has benefits, health- and safety-wise. The “bang” can signal to bystanders to take cover or help police to locate a threat. Maybe that’s why they say rifles “report.”
To be sure, the noise-reduction devices at issue do not eliminate gun noise; they reduce it by 30 decibels or so, making “suppressor” a more accurate term, and mitigating whatever additional risk the general public might face if the law results in more use of silencers, including unlawful use, as opponents fear. Silencers are almost never used in murders and other crimes under the current restrictive law, but certainly they would be used in more crimes if there were more of them in circulation.
And it is the general public upon whose behalf Congress is supposed to legislate, not the tens of millions who participate in shooting sports. Even a marginal increase in risk to the population cannot be justified, unless the harms to the minority from current policy are very severe and there are no means to reduce them other than the proposed legislation. In fact, the harms to shooters are modest — somewhat elevated risk of non-total hearing loss, essentially — and effective alternatives to silencers are readily available.
On March 16, the National Hearing Conservation Organization issued an official position on Recreational Firearm Noise, which emphasized that hearing loss from exposure to gunfire is “largely preventable with the use of appropriately fitted hearing protection devices,” such as earplugs or earmuffs. The problem is that firearms users generally don’t take these simple precautions. Suppressors might help, NHCA acknowledged, but not “without the wearing of hearing protection.” In other words, “manufacturers cannot guarantee that use of noise suppressors alone will prevent hearing loss.”
Congress should tell the NRA to go away and not come back unless and until it has waged a serious campaign to get recreational shooters to take precautions and has measured the results. What’s going on now is just the usual political noise.