Silencers aren't just for James Bond anymore

Suppressors are currently legal to use and possess in 42 states and 40 states have approved suppressor use for hunting. Shawn Butt says he often uses a suppressed .22 when squirrel hunting. (Photo: Richard Simms)

Most people think "silencers" on guns are just something they see in the movies -- something that lets James Bond take out a bad guy without other bad guys knowing he has infiltrated their fortress.

However silencers, also known as "suppressors" are not just for James Bond anymore. They are becoming more and more common in real life. Most recent data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), show more than 900,000 people own silencers for various firearms -- nearly 20,000 in Tennessee and nearly 50,000 in Georgia.

"Silencers have been one of the fastest growing segments of the firearms industry for the past five years," said Erik Almy, an avid hunter and firearm enthusiast from Cleveland (Tenn.). "Many companies that offer silencers have lists of customers waiting on the newest versions or models being produced. Manufacturers have not been able to keep up with demand in some cases."

In the wake of Donald Trump being elected as President, Almy and other supporters hope silencers will become even more common.

Silencers are legal to own in almost every state. Currently federal regulations, known as the National Firearms Act (NFA), require an extensive federal application process to own a silencer, including a $200 tax on each silencer and a thorough FBI background check that can take up to ten months to complete. The NFA was created in 1934, in the wake of Prohibition-era violence carried out by heavily-armed bootleggers and gangsters.

"The designation that suppressors fall under 'NFA' rules was put in place more than 80 years ago and hasn’t changed since," said Almy. "It’s outdated and archaic."

Almy and Butt hope that will change with the passage of the Hearing Protection Act of 2015, proposed by Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.). The bill would remove silencers from the purview of the National Firearms Act, instead putting them in the same regulatory category as long guns.

For now Rep. Salmon's Hearing Protection Act is resting comfortably in committee with no immediate action scheduled. However supporters seem confident that once the President-Elect actually becomes President, that bill, and others, will be fast-tracked. The bill has 82 co-sponsors (80 GOP, 2 Dem.) in the House, including TN Representatives Fleischmann and DesJarlais, as well as GA Representatives Carter, Scott, Hice and Graves.

Trump has proposed eliminating prohibitions on assault weapons, military-style weapons and high-capacity magazines which he described as "scary sounding phrases" used by gun control advocates "to confuse people." Trump has also said he believes concealed carry permits should be valid nationwide, rather than on the current state-to-state basis.

As its title suggests, the bill’s sponsors are framing it as an effort to keep shooters from damaging their ears.

"My left ear I know has been damaged from shooting over the years," said area firearm enthusiast Shawn Butt. "After a shot in a hunting situation my ears would hurt, which means they're being damaged, and I'd suffer from tinnitus for days."

However Butt and Almy both went through the complicated, lengthy and costly process to be permitted for silencers.

"I have suppressors in .22 caliber, 9 mm, .45 caliber, and .30 caliber," Butt said. "I've taken around 10 animals now with suppressed firearms and after the shot I can still hear."

Ear plugs and headphones, of course, suppress the sound of a gunshot as well. However Butt complains that they also prevent him from hearing wild game approaching.

"I've yet to find a hunter that could hear the direction of a deer crunching leaves under foot with even the most expensive pair (of headphones), I don't care what they advertise," he said.

One opponent to silencers is Ladd Everett, director of communications for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Everett told the Huffington Post that money, not hearing, is driving the current push to make it cheaper and easier for people to get silencers, despite the potential for misuse.

“The NRA and gun industry view accessories like silencers as potential profit areas, with guns themselves so well-saturated throughout their existing customer base. That’s why we’ve seen this multi-state effort to weaken laws in this area, the obvious consequences for safety be damned,” Everett told The Huffington Post. “It’s about profit, nothing else.”

Butt and other supporters insist there are no "consequences for safety." They say the greatest myth about silencers is that, like in the movies, a silenced weapon is virtually impossible to hear.

On average most silencers reduce the noise level about 30 decibels (dB). That means a gun that normal emits a blast at 160 dB will be reduced to 130 dB. For comparison, from three feet away your lawnmower emits almost 110 dB.

"Reducing the noise level of guns doesn't make them more dangerous," said Butt. "Too many people base their 'facts' on Hollywood movies. A shooter with a silencer cannot keep others from knowing where he's shooting from. That's just pure fiction."

"Legal firearm transactions are already heavily regulated via the NICS background checking system across the country," said Almy. "The track record over the past 18 years tells you that the NICS system does a good job of keeping those people who shouldn’t be buying a gun from doing so legally."

Here are some more "Fast Facts" about silencers from the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

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