Lawmakers spar over gun silencer bill

Lawmakers spar over gun silencer bill
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Democrats are voicing opposition to a Republican measure that would ease restrictions on the purchase of gun silencers.

The measure from Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) is in a broad sportsmen’s bill, the Sportsmen's Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act, aimed at broadening public access to federal lands for hunting and fishing.

But the bill also contains some gun provisions, including Duncan’s, which would make it easier to buy silencers for firearms, a process which currently requires registration and a background check under the National Firearms Act. 

Under Duncan's measure, silencers, also known as suppressors, would be removed from the National Firearms Act. Purchasers would need to only undergo a less extensive, instant background check.

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At a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands hearing on the bill Tuesday, Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) said silencers muffle the distinctive sounds of a gun and make it more difficult to identify where shots are coming from.

“It is for this reason that silencers are so heavily regulated and why so dangerous if they fall into the wrong hands,” he said. “We should not make it easier for anyone to obtain these weapons of war.”

Gomez expressed dismay that the measure was tied to a hunting and fishing bill.

“It is deeply concerning that our committee is taking up valuable time and resources on a bill loaded with provisions that will weaken gun safety laws instead of a clean bill that could potentially earn all of our support,” he said.

But Republicans defended the measure, saying silencers were used primarily by sportsmen to prevent hearing loss.

Duncan’s measure is dubbed the Hearing Protection Act and has the backing of the National Rifle Association, the country’s most powerful gun rights group.

"Right now we are in a situation where it seems … that sportsmen have to choose between damaging their hearing and being able to hunt, shoot, target practice,” said Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.).

Democrats invited David Chipman, senior policy adviser of Americans for Responsible Solutions, a pro-gun control group to testify. Chipman, a 25-year veteran of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said making silencers easier to obtain would endanger police officers and the public.

Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) asked Chipman if the legislation would make active shooter situations more dangerous.

“Anytime an active shooter situation takes longer to recognize as an actual shooting causes more injury and death,” he said.

Referencing last year’s mass shootings at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Fla., and the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., McEachin asked Chipman if the bill would lead to more deadly weapons ending up in the hands of the kinds of people who commit these atrocities. 

“This bill in particular would make silencers more readily available to criminals because for the first time in 80 years private parties could sell these guns without background checks on the internet and in gun shows and this has never been the case before,” Chipman said.

“One of the reason we have not seen silencers out there in tons of crimes is the fact that we have a regulatory structure that makes it very difficult to get these.”

Chipman said there would have been more casualties at the congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Va., where House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) was shot and wounded if the gunman had used a silencer.

“Since silencers today are legal, there can be no possible benefit other than a negative undercutting of public safety by making them unregulated,” Chipman said.

Democrats also raised concerns that other gun provisions in the sportsmen’s bill could make it easier to import more firearms into the U.S.

Cheney asked Stephen Halbrook, who has sued on behalf of the NRA, whether additional access to suppressors will result in an increase in gun violence.

“It’s easy to make a suppressor. If you want to make one now you can do it and a person who would not be dissuaded from committing a murder by capital punishment potentially is not going to worry about a National Firearms Act conviction for non-registration of a suppressor,” Halbrook said.

“The fact is we’ve heard a parade of horribles of issues that would apply to criminals and we have criminal misuse of weapons now,” he continued. “This bill would simply make it easier for law abiding people to protect their hearing.”

After the hearing, Democrats held an event to draw more attention to the measure.

Rep. Raúl Grivalja (D-Ariz.) called the gun provisions “poison pills” and said it was “cowardly” and “arrogant” to attach them to “otherwise good legislation.”

“What happened today was a kowtowing to the NRA, to gun manufacturers, their agenda, and now to what they hope is a new industry that expands: silencer manufacturers,” Grivalja told reporters.

Democrats said they did not expect to be able to block the silencer provision in the House.

“Hopefully the Senate will provide a little adult supervision on these issues,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.).

This story was last updated at 5:44 p.m.