Silencer laws reveal irrationality of gun debate

Both regular gun users and infrequent shooters would benefit from having easier access to gun silencers.
Both regular gun users and infrequent shooters would benefit from having easier access to gun silencers.

More than 100 years ago, inventor Hiram Percy Maxim created two almost identical products to accomplish the same goal in two very different industries. The divergent ways we treat those products today reveals the irrationality driving our national firearms debate.

One of Maxim’s inventions, a muffler for the internal combustion gasoline engine, was lauded for its ability to reduce ear-splitting noise. Now mufflers are mandatory for cars, trucks, buses and industrial machinery to keep people from suffering permanent hearing loss.

Maxim also invented a gun muffler. Silencers were in common use in the United States until the Great Depression, when impoverished Americans began using silenced rifles to poach animals to feed their families. This did not sit well with game wardens, ranchers or the federal government.

When Congress passed the National Firearms Act in 1934 to regulate machine guns, sawed-off shotguns and short-barreled rifles favored by Prohibition-era gangsters, silencers were thrown in for good measure. If a person wanted to buy a silencer, he had to seek approval from the federal government and then buy a punitively expensive tax stamp. (That’s still true today.) Gun mufflers have largely been associated with crime ever since.

In the movies and on television, silencers reduce the sound of gunfire from a loud and distinct bark to a faint cough that can’t even be heard from the next room. In the real world, the three sounds created when a gun fires cannot be completely eliminated. Even “silenced,” the most common rifles and pistols are quite loud.

Gun silencers, to those with no actual firearms experience, seem criminal. But for the Americans who understand that guns, like cars, are tools, silencer regulation is a nonsensical nuisance. We use mufflers on engines to spare drivers’ ears on the road; why shouldn’t we use mufflers on guns to spare shooters’ ears at the firing range?

Even with good noise-canceling equipment, several hours of shooting can cause temporary ringing in the ears and long term hearing loss. By using both silencers and earplugs, frequent shooters can not only help their own hearing, but cut down on environmental noise as well.

Infrequent shooters also benefit from silencers. Firing a gun indoors in self-defense, for instance, can temporarily deafen a homeowner. This could lead to a nightmare scenario in which a homeowner can’t hear law enforcement officers responding to a 911 call, or orders to put their hands up.

There are now more than 800,000 silencers in the hands of citizens who are refining and defining their role in American society.

We now know that silencers make precision rifles more accurate and training guns less intimidating for new shooters.

And at last there is a strong national push to remove silencers from the National Firearms Act via the Hearing Protection Act in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill has 50 co-sponsors, and would remove the $200 tax and six to nine month delays that typically accompany suppressor approval from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Under the revised law, anyone wishing to buy a silencer to protect their hearing would still be required to fill out an ATF form at their gun dealer, and would still undergo a background check.

Second Amendment restrictionists often say they want “common sense gun safety” measures, but more often than not their proposals are neither common sensical, nor about safety. Making silencers readily available to protect hearing, on the other hand, is a supremely logical way to defend shooters and bystanders from harm.

Bob Owens is the editor of, a firearms educator and a radio and television commentator about Second Amendment issues.