GOCRA Briefing: Sound Suppressors – Mufflers for Firearms

Historical Note: We published this briefing while working to legalize suppressors. We won! On Friday, May 22, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton signed Senate File 878 into law. Among many other provisions, the law legalizes the ownership of firearm sound suppressors, sometimes called “silencers,” by ordinary Minnesotans.

What is a sound suppressor?

Invented in 1902 by Hiram Maxim, the inventor of the automobile muffler, a sound suppressor is a device that lowers the volume of most gunshots from “instant hearing damage” to just “really loud.” These devices protect hearing, reduce recoil and noise pollution, and allow shooters to more easily communicate together, making hunting, target shooting and coaching safer for everyone.

shooter-webNot Really a “Silencer”

Maxim, an expert marketer, named his invention the “Maxim Silencer,” leading to over a hundred years of misconceptions. Shooting a firearm makes three separate sounds:
  • The “clack” of the action moving
  • The “boom” of the gunpowder
  • The “crack” of the sonic boom made by the bullet traveling faster than the speed of sound.
Sound suppressors can only reduce the sound of the “boom,” and only by about 30 decibels. For example, a good sound suppressor can reduce the sound of a 9mm pistol from 64 times louder than a jackhammer, to “only” about 8 times louder! Noise Scale

Legal in 39 States – and Growing

map-webIn the last five years, 15 states have expanded the ability of private citizens to own and use sound suppressors. The devices are legal in our neighboring states of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. Traditionally liberal states like Maryland and Connecticut allow suppressors, and legislation – introduced by Democrats in both chambers – is working its way through the Illinois legislature.    

Heavily Federally Regulated

The possession and use of sound suppressors are governed by the National Firearms Act of 1934. To obtain a sound suppressor, a law-abiding citizen must:tax-stamp
  • Pay a special federally licensed dealer in advance for the device (prices range from $500 to $1,500 or more)
  • Obtain the signature of her local chief law enforcement officer (usually a police chief).
  • Submit to the ATF:
    • A detailed application form including information about the applicant and the specific serial-numbered suppressor
    • Fingerprints taken by a law enforcement agency
    • Passport-style photographs
    • A non-refundable $200 tax per device
  • Wait approximately nine months
Only after the application, fee, and fingerprints have been processed, and after the ATF sends a tax stamp, may the citizen return to the federally licensed dealer to pick up her sound suppressor. In all, the individual must pass three separate background checks before taking possession of the suppressor. Possession of an unregistered suppressor can result in 10 years in federal prison; use of a suppressor in a crime carries a mandatory 30-year sentence.

CDC-Recommended Hearing Protection

cdcThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has, on five separate occasions, in separate studies, over multiple years, with multiple researchers, recommended the use of a sound suppressor with a firearm whenever possible. For example: “The only potentially effective noise control method to reduce students’ or instructors’ noise exposure from gunfire is through the use of noise suppressors that can be attached to the end of the gun barrel. However, some states do not permit civilians to use suppressors on firearms.”

Not a Tool for Violent Criminals

Suppressor usage in violent crime is extremely rare. In fact, most states don’t track suppressors used in crime because it’s too rare to bother tracking. A scientific study in 2007 looked at a ten-year period, and found only two federal prosecutions in which someone was actually shot with a suppressed firearm. In most of the approximately 15 federal prosecutions per year, the suppressor wasn’t used in a crime, but was merely found in the possession of the defendant.

Poaching Concerns Unfounded

Suppressors are not used in poaching to any significant extent. In the ten-year study above, there was only one prosecution found for illegal hunting. This is understandable, due to the limited muffling of gunshots provided by a suppressor, combined with the harsh federal penalties. In an Alabama newspaper, a senior state conservation official said, “A poacher typically uses whatever they’ve got. They’re not going to go out and fill out a lot of paperwork.” When asked about the concern that conservation officers wouldn’t hear gunshots, he said, “Our officers don’t follow the shot. We use other methods.”
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