A push by the firearms industry and gun lobby to make it far easier for private citizens to buy and possess firearm silencers will only place the police and public at increased risk warns a new and expanded edition of the Violence Policy Center’s (VPC) study Silencers: A Threat to Public Safety. In detailing this marketing push, the study also documents examples of lethal attacks and criminal activity involving silencers.
Silencers are devices that when attached to the barrel of a firearm reduce the amount of noise generated when the weapon is fired. In recent years, the gun industry has aggressively marketed silencers as a new potential profit center.
VPC Legislative Director Kristen Rand states, “Silencers are military-bred accessories that make it easier for criminals to take innocent lives and threaten law enforcement. Existing federal law has kept crimes committed with silencer-equipped firearms rare. Making silencers more easily available to the public would have deadly consequences.”
With the backing of the National Rifle Association and the firearms industry, federal legislation–misleadingly named the “Hearing Protection Act of 2017”–has been introduced in Congress. The bill (H.R.367) is sponsored by Representative Jeff Duncan (R-SC). Companion legislation has been introduced in the U.S. Senate. The measure would remove silencers from the list of firearms and accessories regulated under the National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA), making them subject only to the same regulations that currently apply to common hunting rifles.
The VPC study explains that bill proponents, including Donald Trump Jr., “would like the public and policymakers to believe that silencers are innocuous devices used merely to protect the hearing of shooters, including children. But in fact, the campaign to deregulate silencers is merely the latest attempt by the gun lobby and firearms industry, in the wake of declining household gun ownership, to market yet another military-bred product with little concern for is impact on public safety.”
Since 1934, the National Firearms Act has required that transferees of silencers submit fingerprints and a photograph, pay a special tax, undergo a background check, and obtain a signature from a “Chief Law Enforcement Officer” or CLEO. (In early 2016, the Obama administration finalized a new rule that unfortunately eliminates the CLEO sign-off requirement for all NFA weapons and accessories, replacing it with a simple notice requirement.)
The study documents crimes involving silencers, both legal and illegal, including the following:
• In June 2011, Israel Keyes, a confessed serial killer who murdered up to 12 victims, used a gun equipped with a silencer to kill at least one of his victims in Vermont.
• In February 2013, Christopher Dorner targeted Southern California law enforcement officers and their families, murdering four people and wounding several others. Dorner used a silencer on his 9mm semiautomatic Glock handgun. He also used an AR-15 assault rifle equipped with a silencer to fire at officers.
• In January 2016, Samy Mohamed Hamzeh was arrested and charged after acquiring automatic firearms and a silencer in furtherance of a terror plot to commit a mass shooting at a Masonic Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. According to the FBI, Hamzeh explained to an undercover agent, “We want two machineguns, you now have one, so we want two more, and we need three silencers, that’s it….[T]hen we will march…each one has a weapon, each one has a silencer gun, the operation will be one hundred percent successful. I am telling you, to go without silencer gun, you will be exposed from the beginning.” Hamzeh’s goal was to kill at least 30 people believing this would inspire other terror attacks in the United States.
• In August 2016, Justin Sullivan was charged with communicating with a leader of the Islamic State in furtherance of an attempt to provide material support to a terrorist organization. Sullivan told an undercover law enforcement agent that he wanted to obtain an AR-15 assault rifle and silencers to use in assassinations and mass shootings. Sullivan was also charged with murder for allegedly killing his 74-year-old neighbor.
• Ronald Chaney III, Charles Halderman, and Robert C. Doyle were all white supremacists who plotted to shoot and bomb congregants at black churches and synagogues. In an effort to acquire weapons to use in the attacks, Chaney and Doyle met with an undercover FBI agent they believed to be an arms dealer and handled and inspected silencers in October 2015. They then placed an order for a machine gun, explosives, and a pistol equipped with a silencer. All pleaded guilty in 2016 and were sentenced to prison terms ranging from eight to 20 years.
In its conclusion, the report warns: “Since 1934, the strict regulations contained in the National Firearms Act (NFA) have worked to limit crimes committed with silencers. Recognizing this, silencers should remain regulated under the NFA. Making these weapons available to the general public with far fewer restrictions will ensure that their use in crime will increase.”
The full report, including gun industry catalog images of silencers and statistics on the number of silencers legally registered under the National Firearms Act, can be found here http://www.vpc.org/studies/silencers.pdf.
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