I am the man who shot bin Laden.
Zombie bin Laden, anyway, which is one of the more popular of the fanciful targets you can buy at Full Armor Gun Range in Houston, and I have five of them. I am punching holes approximately 45 hundredths of an inch in diameter in Zombie bin Laden’s turban with a rented Ruger 1911 and feeling confident that if ever America gets invaded by a ravening army of stationary two-dimensional paper zombie terrorists, then I am ready for action.
This particular .45 has an eight-inch Sig Sauer silencer (your local gun nut will insist on “suppressor,” but Sig Sauer calls them “silencers”) screwed into the barrel, the weight and length of which gives it an unusual feeling. But one thing about it is not unusual: Every time I pull the trigger, I hear a loud noise that sounds remarkably like a gun going off. This in spite of the silencer and the dorky big blue hearing-protection earmuffs I’m wearing.
There’s a big difference between what the gun guys call “Hollywood quiet” — that funny little tweep! tweep! tweep! sound that firearms equipped with silencers make in the movies — and what a suppressed .45 sounds like in the real world. Guns are loud, and the more powerful guns that have such practical real-world uses as shooting aoudad sheep or burglars are really loud — many of them make enough racket to necessitate the use of hearing protection at the range even when fitted with a silencer.
A silencer is basically the firearms version of an automotive muffler, which was in fact developed in parallel with it and which works on the same principle — use baffles to slow down and disperse the gases produced by combustion. In much of the world, they call vehicle mufflers “silencers,” not that they make your Harley-Davidson sound like a skateboard. What’s missing from the report on this .45 isn’t really the bang! but the concussive soundwave that makes your ears ring and jolts the people around you at the range if you’re shooting something big and stupid and fun.
“You can get that ‘Hollywood quiet’ with a .22,” says Full Armor’s Tommy Hinson. “Anything bigger, though, not really.”
Truth be told, you can’t get that with any old .22, either. Bullets generally travel at supersonic speeds, and the crack! you hear when firing a gun comes from what is in essence a miniature sonic boom. Quieting down a firearm isn’t only a matter of screwing a silencer into the front — “Hollywood quiet” requires the use of slow-moving subsonic ammunition, which complicates the ballistic math quite a bit. A bullet’s power has two components: how heavy it is and how fast it is going. (High-school-physics flashback: Kinetic energy equals one-half mass times velocity squared.) Although they will vary across different loads, the ballistic characteristics of a subsonic .22 are in the same ballpark as those of a good air gun, and a good deal less powerful than those of a standard, supersonic .22. Good enough for Zombie bin Laden, no doubt, and suitable for squirrels and rabbits.
But not exactly a weapon of war.
In fact, many subsonic rounds don’t even have enough power to function properly in semiautomatic rifles and handguns, which rely on recoil to cycle the action and load the next round for firing.
In Europe, firearms generally are more heavily regulated than they are in the United States, but silencers are a cash-and-carry item, sold over the counter with a minimum of regulation — typically, a gun-ownership permit is sufficient to buy a silencer, though in Bavaria all that’s required is a hunting license, and in France all you need is your credit card. And, contrary to popular perception, silencers are perfectly legal in the United States, too: If you are legally eligible to buy a firearm, then you are legally eligible to buy a silencer, at least as far as federal law is concerned. (Eight states prohibit silencers.) It’s just that it is an enormous pain in the ass: There is a $200 federal tax that has to be paid and federal paperwork that has to be processed — which currently takes between nine months and a year. On top of that, you are obliged to keep your federal-tax paperwork on you when in possession of your silencer. This puts silencers in the same category as short-barreled rifles and other weapons subject to extraordinary federal regulation. You don’t see these used in a lot of crimes — you see them used in a lot of movies.
And on top of all that, the Obama administration managed to make things a little worse. Silencers are not transferable the way firearms are or the way ordinary property is. For a long time, the standard practice was to establish a trust that would legally own the silencer, adding or removing people (e.g., your heirs, or a hunting buddy you share your $1,000 silencer with) as needed. The Obama administration adopted new rules that make that process so cumbrous and complex that many dealers simply will not get involved with it. What that means is that if you own a silencer and you die, then your family finds itself in possession of a federally regulated item without having satisfied the legal conditions for possessing it. The government can simply demand that it be turned in — and some enthusiasts have several thousand dollars’ worth of sound-control gear.
Representative Jeff Duncan (R., S.C.), who chairs the bipartisan Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, has introduced a bill, the Hearing Protection Act (HPA), that would go a long way toward uncrazying this crazypants scheme of regulation, putting U.S. enthusiasts on something more like the legal footing enjoyed by the Hochwild hunters of Baden-Württemberg. Under the HPA, firearms would be sold the same way a rifle is: with an instant background check conducted through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System used to clear firearms purchases. A lifelong hunter, Representative Duncan has a personal interest in silencers: He has suffered some hearing loss himself after years of bagging quail, ducks, and deer.
“When you’re hunting deer from a Texas shooting house” — a hunting blind that is basically a little shack on stilts — “there’s only a small opening, and that rifle shot is going to reverberate,” he says. “There are too many hunting situations where the sportsman can’t wear hearing protection. You can’t hunt turkeys if you can’t hear them.”
Traditional hearing protection can also be dangerous: You don’t want to walk around bear country or moose country with your ears stopped up, and hunters working in groups need to be able to communicate with one another lest somebody get Cheneyed. Silencers allow for the mitigation of some of the worst of the ear-damaging noise without needlessly encumbering hunters. Hunting dogs, with their sensitive ears, also appreciate them.
“The problem is Hollywood,” Duncan says. “They have this James Bond vision of how suppressors work, a criminal screwing a suppressor onto a gun and committing a crime in silence. That isn’t reality.” The most recent John Wick movie features the titular hit man and another assassin sniping at each other with suppressed handguns in a crowd of completely oblivious people. But, of course, no one familiar with the history of American economic policy ought to be too terribly surprised that we are making law based on fiction.
Like high-powered precision rifles and other items of ballistic exotica, silencers are very rarely used in crimes — they are expensive, they make firearms harder to conceal, and they do not offer much in the way of specifically criminal benefits. The great majority of crimes involving silencers are violations of silencer regulations, most typically failing to have the required paperwork at hand. Silencers used in violent felonies do not amount to a tenth of a percentage point of such crimes. The most high-profile silencer case was the 2013 murder rampage of Christopher Dorner, a dismissed Los Angeles Police Department officer who shot seven people, killing four, targeting law-enforcement officers and their families in revenge for what he believed to be his unfair treatment by the LAPD. Silencers are illegal in California; Dorner acquired one in Nevada using his military ID. Many of the weapons he used were illegal in California, too, but California permits law-enforcement personnel to purchase otherwise restricted weapons — and to keep them, even after being dismissed. This is reminiscent of the situation with fully automatic weapons: Only a handful of legally owned full-auto weapons have been used in violent crimes in modern American history, and most of those cases involved military or law-enforcement personnel, not civilians. As usual, we are solving a non-problem while the actual plague of violence on our streets — the overwhelming majority of our murders are committed by people with prior criminal records, often for violent crimes and firearms violations — goes largely unaddressed.
Duncan has about 140 co-sponsors on his bill, and the silencer industry is desperate for something to happen one way or the other: With the promise of liberalization, nobody is buying silencers right now, and one of the more prominent companies in the industry recently laid off workers. “If they passed that law at 10:30 this morning, I’d sell out of suppressors by 2 or 3 p.m.,” says Hinson. Another gun dealer across town jokes about all the hardware he has locked up in “suppressor jail” awaiting paperwork. Boyert Shooting Center, which is both a gun dealer and a range, sets up something like visitation rights for its customers: You can come to the range and play with your toys while you’re waiting for Uncle Stupid to sign off on the purchase, but you can’t take them home.
One possible course of action is to insert the Hearing Protection Act into the Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act, a kind of omnibus for outdoorsmen covering everything from the reform of migratory-bird rules to public-lands access for movie crews. That bill is important to Duncan and it enjoys bipartisan support, and he worries that the HPA might render it “toxic” among gun-wary Democrats, whose largely urban and suburban constituencies know only what they see in the movies.