In February 2013, Americans watched in horror as a disgruntled former Los Angeles police officer, Christopher Dorner, terrorized Southern California. Over nine days, Dorner killed four people and wounded three others during a mass manhunt.
As police investigated, they wondered why nearby residents weren't reporting the shots. It turned out that, in an effort to conceal his murders, Dorner was using a silencer, which distorts the sound of gunfire and masks the muzzle flash of a gun. (Silencers do not completely silence gunfire, as some Hollywood movies would have you believe.) In expert hands, say SEAL Team Six, silencers have been used to help covertly take down the likes of Osama bin Laden. But in the hands of criminals, like Christopher Dorner, they pose a serious threat to law enforcement and the communities they serve.
Now Congress is trying to sneak a measure into an unrelated bill that would make it easier for criminals to obtain this special equipment. The bill, the Sportsmen's Heritage and Recreational Enhancement (SHARE) Act, which will soon be voted on in the House of Representatives, would roll back an 80-year-old law that carefully regulates the sale of silencers.
Shortly after 1930, when 307 law enforcement officers were killed in a single year, Congress passed the National Firearms Act to help regulate some of our nation's most dangerous weapons, including machine guns and sawed-off shotguns. The bill also required gun owners to register their silencers, which has helped keep them in the hands of law-abiding gun owners and out of criminal activity.
The process for purchasing a silencer is relatively simple. Today, gun owners with a clean criminal record can get a silencer with less paperwork than buying a refrigerator, according to the makers of silencers.
If passed, the SHARE Act would gut the existing regulatory system, making silencers readily available without a background check through unlicensed sales at gun shows and on the Internet.
The SHARE Act would also make it harder for civilians and law enforcement to locate active shooters. Silencers degrade the effectiveness of gunshot detection technology that cities including San Francisco, Oakland and San Diego have deployed to reduce violence. When bullets start flying, seconds count. That's why it's so important for bystanders and law enforcement to be able to determine where they are coming from. This bill will only make it harder.
Perhaps even worse, the SHARE Act includes language that would allow the transfer of silencers across state lines and their sale to individuals as young as 18. Dealers would not have to report multiple purchases to law enforcement, even though multiple-sale reports are the primary intelligence tool that federal law enforcement uses to identify firearms trafficking organizations.
There are only two groups who will benefit from the deregulation of silencers: those who wish to inflict harm on our communities, and the corporate gun lobby, which stands to make a fortune.
Now that President Obama is no longer in office and gun sales have plummeted, gun lobbyists have been forced to look for new ways to generate revenue. With the average silencer costing about $1,000, it's not hard to see their motives. They've even teamed up with Donald Trump Jr. in the hopes that more silencers will help get "little kids into the game." Yes, he actually said that. This bill isn't about public safety or sportsmanship; it's about profit.
The bill isn't just bad policy, it's bad politics, too. A new poll of 2018 voters in California swing districts found that an overwhelming majority — 76%, including 65% of Trump voters — are opposed to deregulating silencers. They are joined by law enforcement officials and gun-safety advocates across the country who believe that deregulating silencers would hurt public safety.
Although there's far more gun violence than Americans on either side of the aisle would like, the fate of this bill will be decided by Republicans in places like California. (Republicans in red states will vote in lockstep.) Seven Golden State Republicans currently represent districts won by Hillary Clinton. Voters in those districts don't share the extreme views of the gun lobby's leaders. They simply want reasonable policy that makes California communities safer.
In politics, elected officials are often faced with decisions that require them to choose between political expediency and the public interest. This is not one of those times. When it comes to deregulating silencers, the smart thing politically is to do the right thing.
Peter Ambler is executive director of Americans for Responsible Solutions, the gun violence prevention organization founded by former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.