How loud should a gunshot be?
Loud enough to help cops track a shooter on a spree?
So loud it deadens a hunter’s hearing?
Congressional Republicans, backed by a president elected on a full-throated call for a well-armed citizenry, stand ready to turn down the volume of a gunshot.
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Legislation in the U.S. House would loosen the rules that currently make gun silencers as hard to get as a machine gun — laws put on the books after Kansas City’s 1933 Union Station massacre.
Backers, led by the National Rifle Association, are promoting the bill as the Hearing Protection Act to bolster their argument that hunters and sport shooters unnecessarily damage their ears because misplaced crime-fighting laws so heavily regulate silencer purchases.
Gun-control advocates see the silencer as a way to shroud criminal violence, as noise-quashers that could make it harder for police to track someone blasting away at a crowd or to quickly detect a drive-by shooting.
The gun trade imagines a new market in quieter firearms with less recoil — things that would make a day at the shooting range more pleasant and firing at game from a duck blind less debilitating.
“It’s going to be great for sales and the health of the industry,” said Mike Brown, the CEO of Frontier Justice, a high-end gun shop and shooting range in Lee’s Summit. He’s opening another shop at the Legends in Wyandotte County in November and has plans for a third in Dallas. “People want these things.”
He has reason to be optimistic. Boosters of the bill have lined up 150 sponsors so far, most of them Republicans, including Reps. Sam Graves and Vicky Hartzler of Missouri and Kevin Yoder of Kansas. A hearing was delayed last week after a shooter’s attack on a baseball practice of House Republicans, but that’s not expected to derail the bill.
President Donald Trump won the endorsement of the NRA in May 2016, far earlier than the gun rights group typically backs a candidate for the White House. The NRA argues, “Who could possibly argue with technology that can reduce hearing loss associated with firearm use?”
That political backing opens the prospect that for the first time in more than 80 years, a silencer could be as easy to buy as a deer rifle.
That has hurt silencer sales lately, while potential buyers wait. But it could be the quiet before the silencer explosion.
First, a little bit about silencers. They’re typically metal tubes that fit on the end of a gun barrel with baffles inside. The devices allow the explosive gas and pressure from the ignition of gunpowder — the same force that propels a bullet — room to expand and dissipate inside the muffling device.
That doesn’t make gunfire silent, but it can trim 40 decibels off the sound — the difference between the din of conversation in a restaurant or the pounding of a jackhammer. A .22-caliber gun can be quieted to not much more than its trigger action. A .45 with a silencer still delivers a bang, if less ear-ringing.
Some gun enthusiasts cringe at the term silencer, preferring “suppressor” to resist Hollywood’s depiction of the nearly noiseless gunshot. Yet federal law calls them silencers. One of the leading manufacturers is SilencerCo, and gun mufflers are commonly marketed as “silencers.”
They’re already legal in the United States, although not in California, Illinois and a handful of northeastern states. Nearly 1.3 million are registered in the country, including more than 15,000 in Missouri and almost 8,000 in Kansas.
It’s just a pricey hassle to take one home.
For starters, you pay a $200 special tax on each one (prices on silencers can run from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand).
You need to fill out a longish form, submit photos and fingerprints and get the signature of your local sheriff, police chief, prosecutor or judge attesting you’re not a felon or a fugitive.
“The procedure for owning a silencer may seem daunting at first,” says one dealer’s website, “but actually requires less paperwork than buying an automobile.”
Then you’ll have to wait for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to conduct a background check. Again, the same requirement for buying a machine gun. Gun shops report that means nine months to a year before you can walk out with the accessory.
Once you have your suppressor, you’d better lock it up. If it’s lost or stolen, you have 48 hours to alert the ATF.
“If it gets stolen, you’re responsible,” said Don Pind, a firearms training consultant who works out of a North Kansas City gun store.
If the bill in Congress became law, a distinct possibility with the ruling Republican majority, the tax would evaporate and the federal waiting period would disappear.
That, Pind said, has gun enthusiasts salivating at the possibilities.
“Today, the hassle of getting it is more than it’s worth to most people,” he said.
Some silencer buyers worry about their hearing, Pind said, but he thinks that’s often a secondary appeal. He said many hunters want them so they won’t draw so much attention, and complaints, when they shoot at game near cities where firing a gun is illegal. Just as much, he said, any hobbyist is eager for another accessory, and a silencer has been one of the forbidden fruits of firearms culture.
“It’s another cool thing,” Pind said.
Gregory Ator, an otologist with the University of Kansas Health System, said hearing loss among gun owners “is a real problem.”
The loud percussion of a gun can cause both short- and long-term damage to hearing, particularly in the ear closest to the firearm, Ator said. Even a mild reduction in gun noise, he said, can cut the damage.
“Less noise is better. … Even one time can hurt you. Gun noise is injurious,” the hearing specialist said. “The problem with guns, because it is so loud, it’s not a temporary loss, it’s a permanent loss.”
Fear of missing out
No one doubts the demand for silencers. It grew steadily during the Obama administration amid suspicion that the Democrat would impose stricter rules or outright outlaw silencers. That feeling pushed sales higher a year ago when it appeared Barack Obama would be succeeded by Hillary Clinton.
The ATF processed more than four times as many federal gun background checks in the last year of the Obama administration than it did in his first year. The cumulative number of silencers registered in the country grew by more than a third in 2016.
“The fear of Hillary coming in made a difference,” said Kathy Peisert, owner of the Great Guns shop in Liberty. “Then it dropped off after the election.”
In 2016, said Brown of Frontier Justice, his place sold about 50 per month. Those sales have dropped by 75 percent this year while buyers wait eagerly for a law change that instantly would shave $200 and nearly a year’s wait off of getting a silencer.
“I would think suppressors would be sold with guns like cleaning kits,” he said. “It’s … a game-changer.”
Already, some firearms are manufactured with silencers built in. Brown said the popularity of those guns will take off if the regulatory hurdles to buy them are swiped away.
Some groups see that as a problem, arguing that the crack of gunfire acts as a de facto safety measure.
Both those for and against silencers agree that crimes involving the devices are rare. They disagree whether that’s because criminals are unlikely to plan them into their violent acts or because regulations made them so hard to get.
Gun-control advocates say that, in particular, they could make mass shootings worse by clouding the source of gunfire to bystanders and police.
“The loud and distinctive noise that a gun makes is one of its most important safety features: when people hear it, they realize they may need to run, hide, or protect others,” argues Everytown for Gun Safety. “In mass shootings, being able to hear and identify the gunshots can mean the difference between life and death.”
If people want to protect their hearing, said Andrew Patrick of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, they can use ear plugs. Making silencers more common, he contends, squelches a danger signal.
“People know what a gunshot sounds like and how recognizable that is,” he said. “It’s a known audible warning to people that there is probably something bad happening.”
It’s unclear whether silencers would make it harder to alert police to gunfire. Since 2012, the Kansas City Police Department has used the ShotSpotter gunshot detection system in a 3.55-square-mile area that can tell officers that a gun has been fired and approximately where.
In a statement, ShotSpotter noted that silencers don’t wipe away the noise of gunfire. But it suggested that growing use of silencers might require more effort to detect and track gunshots.
“We have successfully if not inadvertently detected confirmed suppressed gunfire within our existing deployments,” the company said. “We intend to do some targeted testing in the near future. We believe we will have various options ranging from increasing our sensor array density to developing software/firmware to address the detection of suppressed gunfire if it were to become a widespread issue.”
Gun rights advocates see existing silencer regulations as an overreaction to the 1930s organized crime that first put the rules in place and decades of movies showing assassins murdering people with inaudible guns.
“They’re not a problem … they’re a fix,” said Gladstone lawyer Kevin Jamison, president of the Western Missouri Shooters Alliance. “I’ve never fired a suppressor. If I had, maybe my hearing would be a little better.”