Proposal to make it easier to get gun silencers debated in Pennsylvania

Sans silencers, ear muffs provide needed protection, but they can make it more difficult for a shooter to be aware of his or her surroundings and to hear range commands, which can be important for safety when there are other shooters at the range. (Rob Drieslein photo)

YORK, Pa. — Ed Hughes attributes a good chunk of his hearing loss to his hobbies: hunting and competitive shooting.

As a kid, he didn’t wear hearing protection. Hughes, 73, now uses a silencer when he’s shooting to preserve what little hearing he has left. He’ll wear ear muffs if he has to, but they make it harder to be aware of his surroundings and to hear range commands — which are essential for safety when there are other shooters at a range, he said.

The Shrewsbury Township man already owns six silencers, and he has applications in for two more, each for hunting rifles.

It takes months to get approval. Hughes filed his most recent application in May, and he’s still waiting on it.

It’s a process he knows well. Every time he wanted a new silencer, he had to submit fingerprints and photos for a background check through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, along with $200. That tax adds to the cost of a silencer, which can range from $400 to more than $1,000.

Some federal legislators want it to be cheaper, and easier, to get a silencer.

Not totally quiet, but better

A federal bill re-introduced to Congress in January would eliminate the $200 transfer tax and allow a consumer to buy a silencer after an instant background check — the same that anyone buying a gun would undergo.

The bill is in front of the subcommittee on crime, terrorism, homeland security and investigations. It has over 100 co-sponsors, a great sign it could pass in this session of Congress, said Casey Contres, communications director for co-sponsor U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa.

Supporters of the bill say silencers aren’t dangerous — they’re just another tool to protect the hearing of gun owners and make the shooting experience more enjoyable. But opponents say the gun industry is just trying to make more money, and they’re are worried that with increased availability, more silencers would end up in the hands of criminals.

Restricting something out of fear that it might be misused doesn’t make sense to Southern Regional Police Chief Jim Boddington because, he said, criminals don’t follow the law.

“You can’t legislate morality,” Boddington said.

He’s not concerned about criminals getting their hands on silencers, in part, because they don’t actually make a gunshot silent.

“Silencer gives it the connotation that it’s totally quiet, and it’s not,” Boddington said.

He prefers the term suppressor, which is commonly used in the firearm industry. (The bill, however, identifies the devices as silencers.)

It’s not like in the movies. Even with a silencer, a gunshot is loud.

Without a silencer, the average sound of a gun shot ranges anywhere from 150 to 170 decibels. By comparison, a jet engine taking off is 140 decibels, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. A good silencer can cut that sound range down to 115 to 130 decibels. That’s much quieter, but still a long way from silent.

Criminals don’t really want to use silencers because they make a gun harder to conceal, York City Police Chief Wes Kahley said. In his 30 years of police work, Kahley said he’s not aware of a case in which a silencer was used in a crime in the city.

Silencers extend the length of a gun, sometimes by 6 to 8 inches. That’s a lot of extra metal to stick in your pocket or down your pants, he said.

If criminals wanted to, they’d already be using them, he said.

“A marketing ploy”

If silencers aren’t being used in crimes, that just means the current regulation is doing its job, said Shira Goodman. She’s the executive director of CeasefirePA, a statewide organization that works to reduce gun violence in Pennsylvania.

“The system we have, especially in Pennsylvania, is working,” Goodman said.

She also thinks the bill is a solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist. Hunters or sport shooters who want to buy and use a silencer can already do so, she said. Making them more readily available is just another way for gun manufacturers to make money, she said.

“It’s a marketing ploy,” said Goodman.

Thousands of residents in the 4th Congressional District, which covers York, Adams, and parts of Cumberland and Dauphin counties, participate in hunting and sport shooting regularly and are at risk of hearing damage due to gun noise, U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa. said in a statement.

“The proposed bill seeks to increase safety while shooting, allowing people to easily hear and react to fellow hunters and range safety officers,” Perry said.

Scott Morris, president of York County based Freedom Armory Inc., said he stands to gain a lot of new business if the bill passes. His company has a shooting range, offers instruction and sells firearms and accessories, including silencers.

The company’s newest venture, Freedom Armory Machine Works, is the manufacturing arm of the company, and it started making titanium silencers four years ago.

Morris thinks the bill will pass. If it does, his biggest problem will just be keeping up with the huge demand he sees coming.

Beyond financial gain, Morris supports the bill on principal. The $200 tax and extended waiting period for silencers puts an unnecessary burden on law-abiding gun-owners, he said. And he believes silencers can reduce hearing loss for hunters and sports shooters, make target shooting at a range more enjoyable and reduce noise pollution.

Public opinion is shifting, Morris said. And if the bill passes, he thinks that within a decade it could be considered almost impolite not to use a silencer — that it will be insisted upon for the sake of cutting down on noise pollution.

Hughes didn’t realize just how bad his hearing had been damaged until a few years ago. After one too many arguments with his wife, who thought she was being ignored when he just couldn’t hear her, he finally got hearing aids.

That showed him just how much his hearing had deteriorated over a lifetime of shooting.

“It’s like the lights went back on,” he said.

How does it work?

A bullet coming down the shaft of a gun has compressed gases behind it. Without a silencer, those gases are released directly out of the barrel, sending out a shockwave that hits your ears.

A silencer contains that gas and allows it to expand in a controlled environment — the silencer. The pressure wave then moves through the silencer, hitting obstacles created by the baffles — the guts inside the silencer. That lessens the pressure when the gas finally leaves the silencer out into the open, muffling the sound.

 

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