Firearm Suppressors

Summary

Similar to a car muffler, a suppressor traps expanding gas at the muzzle of the gun and allows it to cool, lowering the sound signature of a firearm. Contrary to popular belief, suppressors do not completely silence firearms; rather they help to mitigate the potentially dangerous noise associated with firearms. Even the most effective suppressors on the smallest calibers reduce the peak sound level of a gunshot to around 110-120 decibel (dB). Realistically, suppressors are a useful tool for recreational shooting and hunting, allowing for better hearing protection, reduced recoil, and increased accuracy.

Introduction

Suppressors, also known as silencers, are the hearing protection of 21st-century sportsmen and women. Despite common myths and misconceptions, suppressors do not silence host firearms. Engineered to reduce the sound signature of a gunshot, minimize felt recoil, and increase accuracy, suppressors are quickly becoming the favored accessory of recreational shooters nationwide. They work by trapping the expanding gasses at the muzzle of a firearm, allowing them to slowly cool, in a similar fashion to car mufflers. By decreasing the overall sound signature, suppressors help to protect the hearing of recreational shooters, hunters, and hunting dogs around the world.

Issue

Even the most effective suppressors on the smallest calibers, like .22 LR, reduce the peak sound level of a gunshot to around 108-120 decibels (dB). To put that in perspective, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), that is as loud as a jackhammer (110 dB) or an ambulance siren (120 dB). The best suppressors reduce the peak sound level to around 130-150 dB. While this is a tremendous reduction in noise level, it is still loud enough to cause hearing damage (140 dB). Although there is variation, well-engineered suppressors generally reduce noise levels by about 20-35 dB, roughly the same amount as a high-quality pair of earplugs or earmuffs. Since most hunters do not wear hearing protection in the field because they want to hear their surroundings, suppressors offer a practical and effective alternative type of hearing protection.

Opponents of suppressor use for hunting often posit that their legalization will increase poaching incidents. This position is largely based on the misconception that suppressors completely silence firearms. States that have recently legalized their use have seen no increase in poaching.

Suppressors are federally regulated under the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934, the same act that regulates machine guns and short-barreled rifles. These items, which fall under the purview of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), carry severe penalties for criminal use. To purchase a suppressor an individual must find a licensed dealer, send the appropriate paperwork to the ATF along with a one-time $200 tax per suppressor, undergo an extensive FBI background check, and undergo a NICS check at the point of purchase. As of June 2023, wait times for this process average 8-10 months or more. The DOJ has reportedly directed the ATF to reduce wait times, but this goal is not being met with any consistency.

While there remains a large amount of misinformation concerning suppressors, realistically they are a useful tool with multiple positive applications. Allowing suppressors to be used for hunting has numerous benefits, such as hearing protection and reduced recoil and muzzle rise, which results in increased shooter confidence. This allows for more consistent and accurate shots, improved relations for hunters and recreational shooters with the general public, and the potential recruitment and retention of new hunters and shooting sports participants due to the favorable attributes of suppressors.

Points of Interest

  • Consistent use of suppressors can help reduce noise complaints from residents.
  • Suppressors reduce recoil and muzzle rise, allowing hunters to make quicker and more effective corrections in the field.
  • Many hunting preserves now require the use of suppressors to avoid inducing unnecessary stress in other herds or herd members.
  • Hiram Percy Maxim invented the first suppressor in an attempt to solve the noise complaints of his neighbors. He also invented the car muffler and the two technologies work in the same way.
  • Referred to as “moderators,” suppressor use is actively encouraged in many European countries.
  • In the U.S., suppressors are considered “firearms”, despite actually being a firearm accessory, and are regulated pursuant to the National Firearms Act.
  • According to a 2017 report conducted by the National Hearing Conservation Association’s Task Force on Prevention of Noise-Induced Hearing Loss from Firearm Noise, “using firearms equipped with suppressors” is one of “…several strategies [that] can be employed to reduce the risk of acquiring NIHL and associated tinnitus from firearm noise exposure.”
  • NIOSH also recommended in a similar noise study that, “if feasible and legally permissible, attach noise suppressors to firearms to reduce peak sound pressure levels.”
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found through studies that, “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.”
  • A 2021 ATF statistical update reported there are over 2.66 million registered suppressors in circulation in the U.S.
  • In 2021, LD 635 was signed into law in Maine, removing the requirement that sportsmen and women make a payment and submit an application to the state fish and wildlife agency to use their suppressors in the pursuit of game. Up to this point, Maine was the sole state in having this additional hurdle in conjunction with the NFA requirements.
  • On June 1, 2022, Senate Bill 281 (S. 281) – legislation authorizing the use of suppressors while hunting – was signed by Governors Sportsmen’s Caucus (GSC) Member Governor Phil Scott of Vermont. The signing of this bill comes after a decade of efforts spearheaded by leaders of the Vermont Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus, CSF, and ASA. Vermont is now the 41st state in which suppressor ownership is both legal and authorized for hunting purposes.

Moving Forward

There are currently 42 states that allow civilians to possess suppressors, following their legalization in Iowa in 2016. Following Vermont’s legalization of using suppressors in the field in 2022, 41 states now permit their use for hunting. Connecticut is the only state that allows possession of a suppressor but does not allow use while hunting. Depending on their respective state laws, legislators should explore and support legislative opportunities to remove restrictions on suppressors, making them more available for general use.

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