The NRA is lobbying for a bill that would loosen access to gun silencers. But there’s more at stake here than meets the ear, argues TCR’s legal columnist.
If you heard that a proposed law was entitled the “Hearing Protection Act,” you might believe the law was intended, say, to strengthen protections for the hearing of workers exposed to high noise levels on the job or to require healthcare plans to cover the costs of auditory tests.
As reasonable as those assumptions may be, they’re wrong.
The Hearing Protection Act of 2017 is actually a bill being lobbied for by the National Rifle Association and the American Suppressor Association—who even knew such an organization existed!—which aims to loosen restrictions on access to silencers for guns.
Their argument in favor of easy access to silencers (which they refer to as “suppressors”) isn’t based on the Second Amendment but on health concerns. Their claim is that gun owners need silencers so they don’t go deaf from the noise made by their firearms.
If passed, the Act would:
- Eliminate a $200 transfer tax on silencers;
- Treat anyone who acquires or possesses a silencer as meeting any registration or licensing requirements under the National Firearms Act (essentially eliminating the need to undergo fingerprinting and a federal background check); and
- Amend federal criminal law to preempt state or local laws that tax or regulate silencers.
Presumably, President Trump would happily sign the Act into law. His son Donald Trump Jr. is a key backer of the bill. In a recent speech to the NRA, the president himself declared an end to the “eight-year assault” on gun rights.
Yes, guns are noisy. For example, a study of noise levels at a firing range found that, during most training exercises, firearms instructors were exposed to peak sound pressure levels greater than 150 decibels, which exceeds NIOSH’s recommended limit of 140 decibels.
Although silencers don’t completely suppress the sound of a gunshot, they do muffle it. (On the NPR website, you can hear what several kinds of guns sound like both with and without silencers.)
Yes, continual exposure to loud noises such as gunfire can irrevocably damage your hearing, causing conditions such as noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus.
But gun owners already have easy access to suitable hearing protection: earplugs and earmuffs. Even the American Suppressor Association acknowledges, “Suppressors reduce the noise of a gunshot by an average of 20–35 dB, which is roughly the same as earplugs or earmuffs.”
In addition, hearing experts advocate the use of hearing protection by anyone firing a gun.
For example, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) doesn’t recommend the use of suppressors to minimize hearing loss from firearms noise. Instead, it advises the use of appropriate hearing protective devices, such as earmuffs or earplugs.
Similarly, a position statement by the National Hearing Conservation Association (NHCA) explains that the use of a suppressor doesn’t eliminate the risk of noise-induced hearing loss; it only reduces the risk by reducing the intensity of the sound emission.
So, manufacturers can’t guarantee that use of silencers alone will prevent hearing loss. As a result, the NHCA recommends that consumers wear hearing protection whenever shooting firearms—including when using a silencer.
Of course, earplugs and earmuffs are only effective if shooters actually wear them.
However, studies have shown that only about half of shooters wear hearing protection all the time when target practicing, says the ASHA. Hunters are even less likely to wear hearing protection because they say they can’t hear approaching game or other noises. But the organization notes that there are many products that let shooters hear softer sounds while still protecting them from loud sounds such as gunfire.
Simply put, we shouldn’t make silencers easier to get just because gun owners can’t be bothered to use the hearing protection already available to them. Instead of advocating for easier access to silencers, the NRA would be better served by upping its efforts to encourage gun owners to wear earplugs and/or earmuffs whenever they shoot their guns.
The hearing protection argument is just a smokescreen. The NRA is reflexively against any measure that it perceives as limiting in any way the rights of gun owners to have access to any and all guns—and gun accessories—that they want.
Although silencers may provide increased protection of the hearing of shooters, they arguably undercut overall public health and safety.
The sound of gunfire alerts people that someone is firing a weapon nearby and that they should take suitable precautions. If that sound is muffled, people may be unaware that they’re in danger and thus not take cover.
In addition, the sound of gunfire may drive individuals to call the police, alerting authorities to a possible crime or accidental shooting. But if a gun has a silencer, no one may hear it when it’s fired and so someone in need of medical attention may not get it in time.
Of course, the NRA contends that silencers aren’t frequently used by criminals. However, loosened restrictions on this equipment may result in an increase in their use in crimes.
In short, I believe that unless you’re a spy, an assassin or the like, there’s no legitimate reason to have a silencer for a gun.
If the NRA has its way, gun owners across the country will not only be able to carry concealed weapons practically anywhere, but also to silence those weapons. If that prospect doesn’t make you nervous, it should.
Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.