Invention and operation
The first firearms suppressor was invented in 1902 by Hiram Maxim, better known as the inventor of the Maxim machine gun. His design was sold over the counter for the price of about $2.
Firearm sound suppressors, colloquially called "silencers", are simple devices that screw onto the end of barrels to provide an expansion chamber for the propulsive gases expelled by the ignition of the gunpowder that propels the bullet. If the suppressor is not present, the rapid expansion of propellant gases creates the familiar "BANG!" of a gunshot.
So-called "silencers" don't make the noise of firing "silent" at all. n short, the (phut) of Hollywood suppressors is completely wrong. A suppressed gunshot is still very loud.
An unsuppressed .22LR out of a semi-automatic pistol is about 160dBA and will cause permanent and total hearing loss at close range. A suppressed .22LR out of a semiautomatic pistol is still 127dBA, or about as loud as the front row of a rock concert(!). However, this level of noise won't instantly damage your hearing.
Why are they so heavily regulated?
The answer is found in a section of federal law called the National Firearms Act, enacted in 1934.
Firearm suppressors were relatively uncommon in the early 20th Century United States. Communities and populations were spread widely apart, and it was easy to find places to shoot recreationally.
The only common use of suppressors was in hunting out of season - remember, this was the Depression and if you had a starving family it made sense to take your suppressed 30-06 out to bag a deer out of season. The addition of suppressors to the NFA was mostly at the request of the Fish and Game enforcement folks - so they could charge mere poachers with a federal felony firearms violation instead of just the minor crime of poaching! Classist much?
The years under Prohibition had several high-profile machine gun murders (of course, the total number of machine gun murders was vanishingly low - even today, machine gun murders are virtually nonexistent), so the Congress was under pressure to Do Something. Additionally, with the repeal of Prohibition, the agents of the IRS previously tasked with breaking up small moonshining stills and busting people for possession of small amounts of alcohol for personal use (sound familiar?) now had nothing to do.
So the NFA was passed, making possession of a machinegun, short-barreled rifle, short-barreled shotgun, destructive device (eg. bombs), or suppressor without a $200 tax stamp a 10 year federal felony. This class is called "Title II" firearms.
Now, it's time to play "One Of These Things Is Not Like The Others" (do you still know the Sesame Street song?). Of course, the suppressor. All the others are things that blow up or shoot a projectile - the suppressor is the only one that's a safety device.
Now, what' the big deal with $200? That's nothing, compared to some guns today that cost in the thousands of dollars, and suppressors that are $500 or more.
The answer is that back in 1934, a tax of $200 on a $2 suppressor was the same as a tax of *$3000* today. Can you imagine that? A ten thousand percent tax on a basic safety item! The intent was to prevent the poor from being able to own these devices - because they didn't want them poaching the deer that was "rightfully" owned by the rich!
In order to obtain this piece of basic safety equipment almost exactly like a car muffler in all but name, you must be fingerprinted, fill out reams of paperwork, and get the blessing of a chief law enforcement officer who can arbitrarily deny you if you're the wrong color, sex, or if you didn't donate to his election campaign. After all this, you must then pay a $200 tax for the privilege of owning what's basically a car muffler.
(BTW, did you know that the UK still calls car mufflers "silencers"?)
And if you do so much as to stick a pop bottle filled with foam on the end of a gun barrel in the interest of just seeing what happens (it explodes), you're guilty of a felony and are going to prison for 10 years for "intent to manufacture a suppressor"! Did you also know that if you have a pistol as well as a bag of potatoes in your car, that's "illegal possession of a silencer" and is also a federal felony?
Why should Democrats like me support making firearm suppressors "Title I"?
The simple answer is that Democrats have a strong record of promoting health and environmental regulation.
Widespread use of suppressors would be a health benefit.
Even exposure to 85dBA of noise causes hearing loss over time. Though target shooters seldom are without earplugs, hunters often do not wear ear protection because they need to hear the sounds of the environment around them. Deregulating suppressors would be a net health benefit to shooters and hunters.
Widespread use of suppressors would be an environmental benefit.
Shooting ranges, even those situated out in the country, often are a source of noise pollution. Though some people would advocate "just close the damn shooting range!", such an action would create stress and conflict in the community. Instead, we Democrats should stand behind our environmental principles and make it easier for these target sports enthusiasts to be good community members by reducing noise pollution.
Widespread use of suppressors would not result in increased crime.
Because suppressors would be subject to the same background checks as an ordinary pistol, they wouldn't be sold over the counter. Additionally, suppressors for pistols are several inches long. The primary reason that criminals use handguns is concealability. Having a suppressor on a handgun makes it virtually impossible to conceal. What about suppressed rifles? (Shotgun suppressors are almost useless, providing only 5-6dBA of noise reduction) Murders with rifles in this country are so rare anyway (less than 3% of firearm murders are with a rifle of any type), that any additional danger posed by "suppressed sniper rifles" is non-existent. Lastly, the historical record shows that legal suppressors aren't misused. There are already 125,000 suppressors in civilian hands, and zero of them have been used in any crime since 1934.
Lastly, it will cause the Republican Party to have a stroke.
The Republicans count on having the gun owner vote, and to have Democrats take a stand to make suppressors easier to obtain would absolutely make the NRA and the GOP shake in their boots - "Holy crap. Aren't we the party of gun owners? Where will our votes go?!?"
Because of the health and environmental benefits of making firearm suppressors easier to obtain, I urge us Democrats to consider legislation making suppressors Title I firearms.
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