Gun lobby seeks to calm fears about silencers
The National Rifle Association (NRA) and other gun rights groups are fighting to change the public perception of “silencers” — or “sound suppressors” — that reduce the noise of gunfire.
Although the gun industry originally popularized the word “silencer” a century ago, now lobbyists are hoping to gain some distance from the term in large part because of fears that Hollywood has distorted the name. Their concern is that the popular concept of the device prompts fear about their use, which could in turn influence policy.
Unlike their portrayal in Hollywood films, pro-gun groups have noted that silencers are not completely silent and claim it would be more accurate to refer to these devices as sound suppressors.
They reduce the noise of gunfire enough to protect ears, but not so much that mass shooters could go undetected, the NRA says.
“The [sound suppressors] were a victim of the success of his marketing,” said Knox Williams, president of the American Suppressor Association, which is working with the NRA on this issue. Williams referenced Hiram Percy Maxim, who first used the term in the early 1900s when he invented what he referred to as the Maxim Silencer. The term later caught on with legislators and regulators.
“He labeled it as a silent firearm, and people took it for gospel,” Williams said of Maxim.
The NRA, American Suppressor Association (ASA), and National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) all invited the media to gun ranges this week to demonstrate that sound suppressors are far from silent.
But gun control groups fear using the term “sound suppressor” risks watering down the danger such devices, according to them, represent.
“It’s all semantics,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
“Focusing on the name distracts people from the real conversation,” Watts said. “They did the same thing with the debate over whether to use the term ‘assault rifles’ or ‘semiautomatic rifles,’ and then the whole conversation shifted to ‘What are we going to call these things?’”
“They want to get into semantics about the language, so we don’t talk about how dangerous they are.”
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) reported last August there are more than 900,000 privately-owned silencers in the U.S. More recent reports indicate that number is growing.
The expanding focus on silencers has intensified the debate over terminology.
Sound suppressors are “less loud, not quiet,” said Larry Keane, senior vice president of government affairs at the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF).
“We prefer to refer to them as ‘suppressors,’ because that more accurately describes what they do,” he explained. “They reduce the noise of gunfire, but they don’t block it.”
“They are simply a muffler for your gun,” Keane said. “You hear a car go by without a muffler and it’s loud, but you can still hear it with a muffler.”
Former ATF agent David Chipman agreed, in part, with this argument — even though he now works for a gun control group.
“If it was up to me, I would feel much more comfortable with the word ‘suppressor,’ because that term is a more accurate description,” said Chipman, who now serves as senior policy advisor at Americans for Responsible Solutions, the gun control group founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.), who survived a 2011 mass shooting.
“That phrase — ‘suppressed gunfire’ — just rolls off your lips,” he said. “Unfortunately, that word is not found in the law that regulates silencers, which I enforced for 25 years.”
Both the National Firearms Act and Gun Control Act exclusively use the term “silencer.” The term was first used by Hiram Percy Maxim in the early 1900s, when he invented what he referred to as the Maxim Silencer. The term later caught on with legislators and regulators.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, people who are exposed to noises louder than 140 decibels may face permanent damage to their ears.
On one side of the spectrum, whispering is about 30 decibels, while a normal conversation is 60 decibels. The ring of a telephone comes in around 80 decibels, and a lawn mower can be as loud as 90 decibels.
But a typical gun shot can be louder than 160 decibels.
The NRA claims suppressors can reduce the sound by more than 30 decibels. That brings it just below the hearing danger level.
But gunfire masked by silencers is far from silent, the NRA argues. They point out it is still louder than jackhammers (130 decibels) and ambulance sirens (120 decibels).
Gun control groups, in turn, raise concerns about humanizing silencers by comparing them to regular sounds.
“I don’t think it matters, because lawn mowers aren’t responsible for the deaths of about 90 Americans each day,” said Erika Soto Lamb, spokesperson for Everytown for Gun Safety, the group run by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Silencers not only distort the sound of a gun shot, but they also mask the muzzle flash, making it difficult to spot a shooter, said Chipman.
“It could confuse you long enough for a shooter to hit you with a second round of gunfire,” he said.
Gun manufacturers enjoyed huge profits during President Obama’s time in office, as gun owners rushed to purchase firearms before the government crackdown that some feared would hit firearm sales.
With a gun-friendly President Trump now in office, this frenzy has declined and critics say the NRA is looking for other avenues to make money.
“The silencers are an accessory to make up for the loss of guns sales since President Obama left office,” Watts said.
“They’ve sold the Barbies, and now they need to sell the Barbie Dreamhouse, and the Barbie shoes, and the Barbie car,” she added. “That is essentially what suppressors are.”
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