The writer is chair of the Political Science Department at State University of New York at Cortland and the author of “Guns Across America.”
Ari Fleischer, the onetime press secretary for President George W. Bush, chanced to be passing through the Fort Lauderdale airport on Jan. 6 when he heard what he described as “multiple gunshots ringing out” close by. “We all realized it was gunfire, and it was coming from the level below us at the escalator.” Five people were killed, and six were injured. Fleischer and others could easily have walked straight into the line of fire had they not been able to hear those shots.
Gunfire — loud, sharp, rude, abrupt — is an important safety feature of any firearm. From potential victims who seek to escape a mass shooting to a hiker being alerted to the presence of a hunter in the woods, the sound warns bystanders of potentially lethal danger. Yet gun advocates insist there is a greater danger: hearing loss by gun owners.
The NRA is renewing with gusto its misbegotten push, begun in the last Congress, to make gun silencers easier to acquire by swiping a page from the public-health community’s long-standing efforts to warn of the dangers of firearms. The Hearing Protection Act, which would remove federal registration and identification requirements for those seeking gun silencers, has received the blessing of President Trump’s son, Donald Jr., and the welcome of the gun-friendly 115th Congress. Even though silencer purchases are legal in all but eight states, advocates want to sweep aside background check and record-keeping requirements, such as photos and fingerprinting, first enacted as part of the National Firearms Act of 1934 , a law passed to curb gangster weapons such as submachine guns and sawed-off shotguns.
Beyond the familiar political imperative to eviscerate any and all gun laws — so why not this one? — the goal is clearly to boost silencer (advocates prefer the term “suppressor”) sales, which have already become a gun industry boomlet. Further proliferation of silencers would also have the commercial benefit of boosting gun sales, because most existing guns do not have the threaded barrels necessary to attach them.
In addition to touting the supposed “public health” threat to gun owners’ hearing, silencer advocates also say that they reduce gun recoil, thereby increasing accuracy, and make the shooting experience “more neighborly,” according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation. The simple and obvious expedients of wearing earplugs or ear covers are alternately dubbed inadequate to protect hearing and a drag on the social experience of shooting. Concerns about criminal use are brushed aside by noting that, as the NSSF says, silencers do not “increase crime.”
But one might attribute silencers’ rare use in modern crime (the Violence Policy Center notes modern silencer use in a handful of serious crimes since 2011) to the success of the strict federal registration requirements governing them — a gun law that has worked, in other words.
Our forebears recognized the dangers of silencers almost immediately, and they weren’t limited to fears about criminal use. The silencer was invented in 1908 by Hiram Maxim, and the first state law outlawing silencers’ sale or possession came within a year — a Maine ban enacted in 1909. Pittsburgh moved against silencers that same year. As the city’s superintendent of police warned, “The risk of shooting is too great; the discharge of the weapon makes too much noise and attracts too many people. But with a silencer in use this would be different.”
From then until 1934, at least 13 states enacted silencer laws, with five of them specifically barring their use in hunting. North Carolina’s 1925 law, for example, barred “any gun” used for hunting “that does not produce when discharged the usual and ordinary report.” Ironically, Maxim ceased manufacturing silencers in 1930, according to the New York Times, “because of the popular impression that this invention was an aid to crime.” Instead, he turned his energies to automobile mufflers.
Absent some kind of cataclysmic hearing-loss crisis by America’s tens of millions of gun owners, this political push should be recognized for what it is: an effort to provide an extremely small benefit to gun owners that willfully ignores what can happen to others once a bullet leaves a gun barrel. The lifesaving safety benefits of gun noise should weigh far more in the silencer debate. Just ask anyone caught in the vicinity of a shooting.