Michael Hiltzik Columnist
Column

A new absurdity from the gun lobby: The 'Hearing Protection Act' (it's actually about deregulating silencers)

The gun lobby certainly is adept at promoting counterintuitive (and probably counterproductive) policy positions, such as that the answer to gun violence in America is more guns. Politicians certainly are adept at giving their bills titles that conceal their purpose, like calling a bill that narrows privacy rights and constrains civil liberties the “Patriot Act.”

Put these proclivities together, and you get the “Hearing Protection Act,” introduced Monday by Reps. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) and John Carter (R-Texas). From the title alone, you’d have no idea that it’s about deregulating the sale of gun silencers. 

Stiff federal regulations on silencers date back to 1934, when they were enacted as part of a crackdown on machine guns and other instruments of mobster violence. (Thanks to the Washington Post’s Michael Rosenwald for some of this history.) In recent years, they’ve stuck in the gun lobby’s craw, as do most restrictions on the sale of firearms and related equipment.

But treating the use of silencers as a public health issue is a relatively new twist. It was first tried in connection with a precursor bill to the Duncan-Carter measure that was introduced in 2015 and died in committee. The silencer industry also has a new high-profile celebrity endorser: Donald Trump Jr., an avid hunter who can be seen in a promotional video for Utah-based SilencerCo. 

Advocates of the measure say silencers, or “suppressors,” to use the preferred industry term, have been given a bad rap by Hollywood and pulp fiction. They says silencers don’t normally reduce the noise of a gunshot to the quiet “thump,” like a fist hitting a pillow, that one hears in James Bond movies, but only enough to stave off hearing loss and allow hunters to hear each other in the wild. 

A video featured on the website Bearing Arms (whose editor, Bob Owens, contributed a pro-silencer op-ed to the Los Angeles Times last year) tries to make the case that even with silencers, gunshots fired inside a home remain “distinct and unmistakable.” Actually, the sound of at least the lower-powered silenced weapons in the clip might be difficult to identify as gunshots; you be the judge.

 “Suppressors do not make guns silent or dangerous,” Rep. Carter said in introducing the bill. “They are simply a form of hearing protection, both for the shooter and their hunting dogs.”

Public misunderstanding about silencers has made them harder to buy than guns themselves. Under the 1934 National Firearms Act, buyers must specifically register, undergo a federal screening that can take nine months and pay a $200 tax. (The tax hasn’t been raised since the 1930s, when it was deemed high enough to discourage virtually any sales.) Those are the same restrictions governing hand grenades and land mines, though of course there isn’t an industry push to expand sales of those devices. In eight states, including California, New York and Massachusetts, civilian ownership of silencers is banned outright.

Manufacturers say it’s illogical to raise a higher bars to silencer purchases than gun purchases, but this is a double-edged sword. They may be right, but that’s an argument for making guns as hard to buy as silencers, rather than the other way around. 

Gun control advocates don’t buy these pro-silencer arguments and neither should you. The argument that silencer sales promote public health by protecting hearing is a smokescreen, they say, for a deregulatory initiative that would largely benefit the firearms industry while increasing the dangers of firearm violence.

“There’s no evidence of a public health issue associated with hearing loss from gunfire,” says Kristin Brown of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “There is evidence of a public health crisis from gun violence, and we think that’s where legislative efforts should be directed.”

Others point to indications that silencers can reduce public awareness of developing firearm attacks and interfere with law enforcement. That appeared to happen in the 2013 Southern California murder rampage of  former Los Angeles police Officer Christopher Dorner. As The Times reported, Dorner’s early morning killing of a couple in a parked car in Irvine initially went undetected, even though he loosed 14 gunshots — apparently with a silenced weapon. Later in the rampage, when Dorner was cornered in the San Bernardino National Forest, his use of a silenced sniper rifle made it difficult for sheriff’s deputies under fire to pinpoint his position. 

Silencer makers themselves boast that the equipment makes rifles “more accurate” and allows more “rapid follow-up shots” by “reducing recoil and muzzle flip,” in the words of a promotional brochure from Advanced Armament Corp. That raises the prospect of even more carnage from determined mass shooters. 

Gun violence activists see the push for silencer deregulation as largely a marketing ploy by the manufacturing industry. “The industry is focused on producing and selling military-style firearms,” observes Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center. “Silencers are part of the appeal of the militarized firearm. The industry sells them as an add-on.”

That may explain Donald Trump Jr.’s real role as an advocate. His endorsement is highly unlikely to expand acceptance of a gun deregulation among those who already favor stricter controls; but it may help to sell silencers to gun buyers already aligned with his father’s politics.

The real flaw in the silencer lobby’s efforts, however, may be the patent obviousness of their fakery. Calling the Duncan-Carter bill the “Hearing Protection Act” is so absurdly transparent an effort to deceive that voters may be prompted to ask an obvious question: “What are they hiding?”

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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