Silencers are inherently dangerous devices that criminals could use to suppress the sound of gunfire and mask muzzle flash. These deadly accessories have been effectively regulated since the 1930s, and would make it difficult for people who are nearby to identify the sound of gunshots and locate an active shooter. Silencers put law enforcement and the public at grave risk. The deregulation of these devices would only increase this risk by providing easy access to criminals determined to get away with gun crimes.

Background

Silencers, also known as “suppressors,” are inherently dangerous devices that criminals may use to suppress the sound of gunfire and mask muzzle flash. These dangerous accessories obstruct law enforcement efforts to quickly and effectively respond to active shooters, since silencers make it harder to recognize the sound of gunfire and locate the source of gunshots. Silencers enable criminals to elude law enforcement and raise the risk of ambush attacks, in which a shooter may escape before the police are even called.

Proliferation of silencers would also diminish the effectiveness of gunshot detection systems, such as Shotspotter. These systems are now deployed in nearly 100 cities, including Chicago, New York City, and Washington DC. They provide police with real-time alerts to illegal gunfire, enabling them to more safely respond to and investigate gun crime.1

The National Firearms Act (NFA) imposes certain obligations on people who make, manufacture, sell, or transfer silencers. That law has been on the books since 1934 and has made it difficult for criminals and other dangerous individuals to obtain silencers. While these individuals can obtain access to other firearms too easily, it has been harder for them to obtain access to silencers.

When dangerous people have managed to circumvent the NFA and gain access to silencers, they’ve used them in targeted, assassination-style murders. For example, Christopher Dorner, a former LAPD officer who had been fired, murdered four people and wounded several others using a gun with a silencer in February 2013. He targeted law enforcement officers in what the Police Foundation described as a bizarre act of vengeance—a “gang-style hit” on individuals who were sitting in a car. Police were initially puzzled as to why no neighbors heard the 14 shots: it was because Dorner used a silencer.2

As described above, silencers present a serious public safety concern. They are also not a fully effective method for protecting a shooter’s hearing. Dual ear protection—muffs and plugs—is the gold standard for any professional shooter, including police and members of the Armed Forces.3 Public health experts warn that hearing loss can occur at 85 decibels. Firearms produce explosive sounds in excess of 140 decibels with the most effective silencers suppressing the sound of gunfire by only about 28 decibels. In contrast, noise reductions from muffs and plugs used together are in the 40 to 50 decibel range.4 The real reason the gun lobby wants to deregulate silencers is so that the industry can profit off their sale and the accessories required for their use—all at the expense of public safety.

Summary of Federal Law

Enacted in 1934, the National Firearms Act (NFA) comprehensively regulates “firearms,” defined to include machine guns, silencers, and certain other weapons, but not traditional rifles, shotguns, or handguns.5 Each person or entity engaged in business as an importer, manufacturer, or dealer of NFA firearms, including silencers, must register with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) and pay a special occupational tax.6 More importantly, the NFA also requires anyone, even an unlicensed person, who is manufacturing, “making,” importing, or transferring an NFA weapon to register it with ATF.7 The term “make” includes manufacturing by someone other than by a manufacturer registered under the NFA, putting together, altering, or otherwise producing a silencer.8 Any person who is not licensed as an importer, manufacturer, or dealer must pay a tax upon transferring or making an NFA weapon.9

The NFA requires ATF to maintain a central registry of all NFA weapons, including silencers, that are “not in the possession or under the control of the United States,” i.e., silencers owned by state or local entities, as well as those legally owned by private persons, are included in the registry.10

For each registered silencer, the registry includes:

  • An identification of the silencer, including serial number; name and address of the manufacturer, maker, or importer, if known; model; and caliber, gauge, or size.
  • The date of registration.
  • The identification and address of the person entitled to possess the silencer.11

Although the obligation to register a silencer at the time of a transfer falls upon the transferor, rather than the transferee, a person possessing a silencer must retain proof of registration and make it available to ATF upon request.12

There are currently over 900,000 silencers registered under the National Firearms Act.13

The Gun Control Act of 1968 defines the term “firearm” much more broadly than the National Firearms Act.14 Silencers fall within both definitions. Consequently, silencers are also subject to regulation under the Gun Control Act.15

Summary of State Law

Eight states and the District of Columbia ban silencers. The list below does not include the large number of other states that have laws on the books that only ban those silencers not registered in accordance with the federal laws mentioned above.

The jurisdictions that ban silencers, with no exception for those registered under federal law, are:

California16
Delaware17
District of Columbia18
Hawaii19
Illinois20
Massachusetts21
New Jersey22
New York23
Rhode Island24

Key Legislative Elements

The features listed below are intended to provide a framework from which policy options may be considered.  A jurisdiction considering new legislation should consult with counsel.

  • State law addresses gun silencers in the context of existing federal regulations, and with a view to the consequences if criminals were to use silencers.
Notes
  1. ShotSpotter, “Seven New Cities Roll Out ShotSpotter Technology to Help Prevent Crime and Reduce Gun Violence,” October 27, 2016, available at http://www.shotspotter.com/press-releases/article/seven-new-cities-roll-out-shotspottertechnology-to-help-prevent-crime-and. ⤴︎
  2. Violence Policy Center, “Silencers: A Threat to Public Safety” (Feb. 2016), at http://www.vpc.org/studies/silencers.pdf (last accessed April 2017). ⤴︎
  3. Dept. of Health and Human Services, “NIOSH Alert: Preventing Occupational Exposures to Lead and Noise at Indoor Firing Ranges” (2009), at https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2009-136/pdfs/2009-136.pdf (last accessed April 2017). ⤴︎
  4. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, “Workplace Solutions: Reducing Exposure to Lead and Noise at Outdoor Firing Ranges” (2013) at https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/wp-solutions/2013-104/pdfs/2013-104.pdf (last accessed April 2017). ⤴︎
  5. 26 U.S.C. § 5801 et seq.) ⤴︎
  6. 26 U.S.C. § 5802. ⤴︎
  7. 26 U.S.C. § 5841(b). ⤴︎
  8. 26 U.S.C. § 5845(i). ⤴︎
  9. 26 U.S.C. § 5811 et seq. ⤴︎
  10. 26 U.S.C. § 5841(a). The NFA refers to the Secretary of the Treasury, who delegated this responsibility to ATF. In 2003, ATF was transferred from the Treasury Department to the Department of Justice, and the Secretary’s responsibilities under the NFA were carried over. See Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives, National Firearms Act Handbook, at https://www.atf.gov/firearms/docs/atf-national-firearms-act-handbook-introduction/download. ⤴︎
  11. 26 U.S.C. § 5841(a). ⤴︎
  12. 26 U.S.C. § 5841(e). ⤴︎
  13. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, Firearms Commerce in the United States: Annual Statistical Update 2016 (U.S. Department of Justice, 2016), available at https://www.atf.gov/resource-center/docs/2016-firearmscommerce-united-states/download. ⤴︎
  14. 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(3). ⤴︎
  15. Note that ATF conducts a background check through the NFA registration process, so sales and transfers of firearms registered under the NFA are explicitly exempted from the Brady background check requirement. 18 U.S.C. § 922(s)(1)(E). ⤴︎
  16. CA Penal Code § 33410 et seq. ⤴︎
  17. Del. Code Ann. title. 11, §1444. ⤴︎
  18. D.C. Code § 22-4514. ⤴︎
  19. Hawaii Rev. Stat. §134-8. ⤴︎
  20. 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/24-1(a)(6). ⤴︎
  21. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 269, § 10A. ⤴︎
  22. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:39-3(c). ⤴︎
  23. N.Y. Penal Code §§ 265.02, 265.10. ⤴︎
  24. R.I. Gen. Stat. § 11-47-20. ⤴︎