Eisenstein: What is a silencer?

Columnist Daniel Eisenstein explains the purpose and legality of firearm silencers. 

Daniel Eisenstein

Contrary to popular belief, a firearm silencer or suppressor is not a device that magically turns a firearm into a quiet death machine only practical for assassins, government spies, James-Bond-film-antagonists and other criminals. Despite this, firearm silencers are more of a burden to own and procure than most firearms themselves. What are silencers used for anyway? Why are they so burdensome to own and procure? What should we do about this?

The idea that a silencer turns a firearm into a near-silent killing machine is nothing more than a Hollywood myth. The effectiveness of a silencer varies depending on the velocity of the bullet and the silencer’s internal volume. No matter how you think about it, gunshots are generally noisy and very distinctive, whether a silencer is utilized or not. But the benefits of silencer use include minimizing hearing damage, reducing environmental noise pollution and firearm recoil mitigation.

If a silencer is applied to a firearm, it will not necessarily make it safe to shoot without hearing protection. A way to think about it is to compare hearing protection to sunscreen. You don’t need to wear sunscreen when walking outside for a few minutes, but you do if you need to spend an entire day outside. Likewise, a few suppressed gunshots will not cause permanent hearing damage without hearing protection, but hearing protection is still advised for continuous shooting.

For civilian ownership, firearm silencers are tightly regulated under federal law and most state laws. Eight of the states enforce outright prohibitions on firearm silencers. In my opinion, these restrictions are rather extreme. To understand how we ended up in this situation, one needs to understand a little basic history and what the laws require.

In 1934, the 73rd Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted the National Firearms Act; a law intended to combat Prohibition-era violence. Firearm silencers were among the devices regulated under the law. Federal law defines a silencer as “any device for silencing, muffling or diminishing the report of a portable firearm” (18 USC § 921(a)(24). The intricacies of the law evolved somewhat since it was passed, but the core requirements remain the same.

To legally own a firearm silencer under federal law, one must pay a $200 tax stamp, whether they transfer the item from a dealer or fabricate and serialize it themselves. This tax payment registers the item with the ATF, whether to an individual, trust or corporation, all of which have advantages and disadvantages. Approval and receipt of a tax stamp come with an arbitrary, lengthy wait time. Once approved, one can take possession of or manufacture their silencer, but they must also request permission to transport the item across state lines, again, with arbitrary wait times for approval.

The legality of firearm silencers varies between states. For example, in Iowa, the legalization of firearm silencers took effect in 2016. Iowa law now permits firearm silencers as long as they comply with federal law. Before then, they were prohibited outright for civilian ownership, just like in my home state of Illinois, where firearm silencers are still prohibited outright for civilian ownership.

In Texas, a law was recently enacted that prevents state law enforcement agencies from enforcing federal law regarding firearm silencers. Likewise, the law also repealed all related state statutes. This legal decision is akin to how a handful of states have ended their prohibitions of marijuana, despite it remaining illegal under federal law. As radical as this may seem, the future is uncertain for the Texas silencer law, as federal law enforcement agencies may still attempt to enforce federal law without state assistance.

My opinion on whether or not a firearm, firearm accessory or other weapon should be legal for civilian ownership revolves around the practicality of the device in question and the feasibility of restricting or prohibiting it.

I believe that a law is only as effective as its enforceability, and there is overwhelming evidence demonstrating the futility of firearm silencer restrictions. Black market silencers frequently appear on websites like AliExpress.com and Wish.com, often labeled as “solvent traps” or “fuel filters.” Anyone with access to a lathe can manufacture a basic firearm silencer, whether they choose to do so legally or not. Anyone with access to a 3D printer and a few bolts can also manufacture a basic silencer, as crude as it may be. After all, a firearm silencer is nothing more than a cylindrical tube full of hollow cones and a hole drilled through the center. 

In other words, I believe the status quo is nothing more than a futile, reactive, honor-enforced system sustained by nothing more than fear-mongering and Hollywood myths.

I already explained that firearm silencers have a variety of sporting purposes, and, for those reasons, I would like to legally purchase or manufacture a few over my lifetime. But, given that I am uncertain where I will permanently settle and the strict legal situation, I do not know when or if this will happen.