Gun silencer bills could mean big business for industry

The next possible gun industry sales boom: Silencers
The next possible gun industry sales boom: Silencers

Republican lawmakers want to loosen restrictions on gun silencers.

The lawmakers say the devices are useful because they keep shooters from blowing out their eardrums. Gun control advocates see them as dangerous weapons that can be exploited by criminals, which is why they were subjected to rigorous constraints in the first place.

Identical bills, each called the Hearing Protection Act of 2017, have been introduced in the House and Senate. If they pass, silencers will no longer require extra layers of gun control that have been in place for more than 80 years.

It would be great news for the silencer industry, which boomed in recent years but appears to have slowed in recent months.

"The return on that would be huge," said Philip Sansotta, the online marketing manager for Gemtech, an Idaho company that has made silencers since the 1970s. Idaho is the home state of Republican Mike Crapo, a sponsor of the Senate bill.

Gemtech and SilencerCo, a leading silencer company headquartered in Utah, displayed their wares recently at the SHOT Show, the annual gun industry exhibition in Las Vegas. Reporters were invited to a windswept desert range to use SilencerCo's Salvo 12, the world's first silencer for a shotgun, and the Maxim 9, a pistol-silencer combo.

Silencers, also known as suppressors, are canister-shaped mufflers attached to the ends of gun barrels to dampen the noise of gunshots.

They sound louder in real life than they do on, say, "The Walking Dead," where they're used to quiet gunshots to avoid alerting marauding zombies. Real silencers sound more like a car door slamming, but they're still quieter than the loud crack of unsilenced guns.

"What you can likely hear behind me is an unsilenced firearm," said Jason Schauble, chief revenue officer at SilencerCo. He was referring to the staccato from the neighboring lane, where reporters were blasting AR-15s from Daniel Defense.

Schauble, a Marine veteran who was shot and wounded in Iraq, said his company sold 120,000 silencers last year, up from 35,000 in 2013. Revenue grew 600% in the same time. The silencers cost $323 to $1,200, depending on the type of gun and caliber.

Related: Gun sales cool following post-San Bernardino surge

More than 330,000 silencers were registered nationwide in the two years ending in February 2016, according to the federal government. That amounts to about a third of all silencers registered since 1934, when the National Firearms Act was implemented.

Silencer sales surged in tandem with gun sales under President Barack Obama, who tried and failed to get gun control measures passed, and with Hillary Clinton running to succeed him.

Under President Trump, though, the threat of tougher federal gun laws has vanished. Gun sales have dropped dramatically, and the future of silencer sales is uncertain.

The Hearing Protection Act appears to be slowing silencer sales, too.

Knox Williams, president of the American Suppressor Association, an industry group, said customers are waiting for looser restrictions rather than paying the $200 tax required under current law and submitting to a months-long background check "for what is effectively a muffler."

They could be waiting a while: Industry officials say the bill is not a priority in Congress and might not pass until 2018 or 2019.

Schauble already laid off some workers after the ATF closed a loophole on silencer sales in July 2016, and he said the Trump factor and the bill in Congress have further slowed sales.

SilencerCo is already offering an unusual rebate: Anyone buying a silencer during a three-month period is eligible for a rebate on the $200 tax required by the NFA. The rebate provides $200 worth of SilencerCo merchandise.

Related: Why NRA-endorsed President Trump is bad for gun sales

Schauble said he suffered hearing loss during his time with the Marines and would have benefited from a silencer. He and Sansotta played down concerns about their potential criminal use, blaming spy movies for making the devices seem quieter than they are.

Under the 1934 act, federal law equates silencers to machine guns and sawed-off shotguns. They're legal in 42 states but subject to more rigorous federal regulations than most guns.

In addition to the FBI check, anyone wanting to buy a silencer has to mail or fax a photo and fingerprints to the ATF and pay the $200 tax. Approval can take nine months or more, unlike a gun background check, which can take minutes.

The bills in Congress would remove that classification for silencers, get rid of the extra layers of background checks and speed the process of buying one.

Related: Buying a gun silencer just got easier

The bills propose that silencers be treated the same as rifles and shotguns, which require standard background checks when purchased through federally licensed dealers. Many states also require their own background checks. But in some states, they could be purchased from non-dealers with no background check.

Brendan Kelly, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence, dismissed the Hearing Protection Act as "absurd."

"There are far more effective hearing protection devices already easily available," he said. "What this is really about is a case of misplaced priorities. Lawmakers introduce this bill in the name of safety, yet continue to trounce the will of the American people by keeping dangerous people armed with guns."

Related: The shotgun silencer is not really silent

The silencer companies have powerful allies in addition to the lawmakers. President Trump was endorsed by the National Rifle Association, and his son Donald Jr. is a competitive shooter who produced a video with SilencerCo CEO Josh Waldron touting the virtues of silencers.

The White House did not respond to a question from CNNMoney about where Trump stands on silencers.

Silencers were originally regulated because of their association with gangsters during Prohibition. Al Capone is long gone, but gun control advocates fear that silencers could still be used to dampen the warning sound of violent acts like mass shootings.

"The noise that a gun makes is a safety feature for those around the gun, whether it's a lawful instance of somebody hunting or it's somebody engaging in a terrible mass shooting," said Robert Spitzer, political science professor at the State University of New York and author of "Guns Across America."

Related: New pistol with built-in silencer debuts

"You always read about people who hear that noise and who are able to flee or to hide, precisely because they are tipped off by that noise," he said.

He said the primary motive for removing regulations from silencers is not to protect hearing -- because hearing protection is already available -- but simply to sell more silencers.

"If the Hearing Protection Act, as it's called, is passed by Congress, signed by the president, enacted into law, I think you'll find an explosion in the purchase of silencers," he said.

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