Hollywood isn’t too concerned with accuracy when it comes to depicting firearm use on the big screen.
Action stars taking precision shots from speeding cars, bad guys blasting away one-handed with fully automatic rifles — realism rarely figures in the picture.
Perhaps nowhere has the entertainment industry more thoroughly distorted how firearms really work than in the use of suppressors, or “silencers,” as they’re more menacingly called in popular culture. In the typical action flick, only government spies or contract killers use suppressed guns, their deadly shots muffled to near total silence.
“For every movie that shows it right, there are a dozen that don’t,” Lee Thompson, the product design director at Daniel Defense, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
Thompson and other gun industry representatives were at Elite Shooting Sports in Manassas, Va. Monday to demonstrate their products and, they hoped, dispel what they see as widespread misconceptions about the use of suppressors.
The event, hosted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), gave members of the media and public relations firms an opportunity to see for themselves what effects suppressors have on firearms handling, accuracy and, most importantly, volume.
As it turns out, a “silencer” doesn’t make a gun all that silent.
A suppressor allows a shooter to safely forego extra hearing protection in an outdoor environment such as an open-air shooting range or a hunting field. Indoors, though, the gunshot is still uncomfortably loud without hearing protection and unmistakable to those with shooting experience.
As Thompson explained, there is a physical limit to how quiet a suppressor can make a gun. The fact that a cartridge is exploding inside the chamber means that even suppressed firearms are quite loud, contrary to Hollywood depictions.
“The supersonic crack of a gunshot is always going to be at least 130 decibels,” Thompson told TheDCNF. “The closing of the action [on an AR-15] is going to be 100.”
By comparison, a commercial airline jet generates 130 decibels during takeoff, measured from 200 feet away. Most suppressors reduce gunshot volume to below 140 decibels, which is the threshold for immediate damage that can lead to long-term hearing loss.
Gun industry professionals prefer to use the term “suppressor” rather than “silencer,” because the latter doesn’t accurately describe what the devices do, and as a result, the reasons a gun owner would buy one.
Suppressors dampen the report of a gunshot in much the same way a muffler reduces a car’s engine noise. Affixed to the end of a gun barrel, a suppressor contains and re-directs the gasses generated by a gun blast, reducing the noise heard by the shooter and others in the vicinity.
The controversial accessory is one of the most heavily regulated pieces of equipment in the firearms industry, even more than most guns themselves. Suppressors fall under the National Firearms Act of 1934, which was originally enacted to police the manufacture and sale of weapons such as short-barreled shotguns and machine guns.
Although they are approved for civilian use in 42 states, buying a suppressor is more complicated — and takes a lot longer — than a standard firearm purchase.
To buy one, an individual must register with the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and pay a $200 transfer tax, in addition to the standard FBI background checks required in all firearm purchases from federally licensed dealers.
Due to the extra paperwork and surging demand for suppressors, the ATF has an extensive backlog of applications that has pushed the average wait time for approval to 8 months, according to an agency memo obtained by TheDCNF.
Suppressor makers and shooting sports groups aim to change the situation through legislation. They are supporting the Hearing Protection Act of 2017 (HR 367), a proposal from Republican Reps. Jeff Duncan and John Carter that would remove suppressors from the purview of the National Firearm Act and make the buying process comparable to that of a handgun.
As the bill’s name suggests, suppressor advocates are couching their support for lighter regulation in terms of shooter safety. Many hunters don’t wear external hearing protection while in the field, for example, leading to long-term hearing damage.
“As demonstrated by the 40 states that have legalized suppressor use for hunting, suppressors are also useful for hunting where it is not practical to wear ear plugs all day in anticipation of shooting,” the NSSF wrote in a fact sheet. “Hunters very rarely, if ever, use hearing protection because listening to one’s surroundings is an important strategy in tracking prey.”
Industry groups also claim that suppressors make firearms instruction safer, especially when dealing with first-time shooters who need to clearly hear commands from instructors. Tom Collins, the general manager of the suppressor division at Sig Sauer, says children especially benefit when they learn to shoot using suppressed firearms.
“For kids, what you want them to do is listen,” he told the TheDCNF. “It’s not always a safe environment with big earmuffs.”
Opponents of suppressor deregulation don’t buy that argument, claiming that easier access to suppressors will increase the likelihood that they’ll be used in mass shootings or attacks on law enforcement. David Chipman, a senior policy adviser at Americans for Responsible Solutions and a retired 25-year veteran of the ATF, called HR367 an “extreme” proposal that is “a threat to public safety.”
“Right now the system seems to be working,” Chipman told NPR in March. “It’s allowing for [suppressor] sales to go up and we’re rarely seeing cops killed with these things, so why fix what’s not broke?”
HR367 currently has bipartisan backing in the House. A similar version of the bill introduced in the Senate by Sen. Mike Crapo doesn’t yet have Democratic support, but NSSF will seek out Democrats from gun-friendly states in the upcoming legislative session, says Patrick Rothwell, the group’s legislative affairs director.
One point in the firearms industry’s favor is that current ATF leadership appears sympathetic to the idea of removing suppressors from the National Firearms Act. Ronald Turk, the agency’s associate deputy director, said in January that including suppressors in the law is “archaic” and should be “reevaluated.”
Turk also noted that suppressors are almost never used in illegal shootings, despite the 1.3 million registered products currently held by American gun owners.
“Silencers are very rarely used in criminal shootings,” he wrote in a memo. “Given the lack of criminality associated with silencers, it is reasonable to conclude that they should not be viewed as a threat to public safety … and should be considered for reclassification under the [Gun Control Act].”
Hollywood portrayals aside, bad guys have little use for suppressors because their added length and extra expense make them inconvenient for criminal use, says Daniel Defense’s Thompson.
“In terms of concealability, they are not good,” he said. “There’s nothing about the product that is tailored toward criminal activity.”
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