By Chris Lamphere
It’s a dramatic portrayal we’ve all witnessed countless times in television and movies — a mysterious, black-clad operative slinks through hostile territory, picking off unsuspecting foes one at a time using a pistol affixed with a muzzle silencer.
Hollywood producers depict the gunfire as little more than a brief squeak, enabling the clandestine shooter to avoid detection by the enemy and complete their mission.
It’s definitely entertaining, but it’s not accurate.
Silencers, known more formally as suppressors, became legal for private citizens to own in Michigan following a 2016 declaration by Attorney General Bill Schuette that mirrored federal changes in the law.
Prior to the law change, individual county sheriffs in the states that allowed suppressor use determined whether or not someone could obtain a permit.
Depending on the personal opinions and political philosophies held by a sheriff, some would flat out refuse legitimate requests for a suppressor permit.
Under the federal law change implemented by the Obama administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives now processes all suppressor permit applications, bypassing local sheriffs and their biases entirely.
While this standardized the process of obtaining a suppressor, it also lengthened it and created some federal loopholes to jump through.
The red tape
ATF representative Rhonda Dahl said in order to obtain a suppressor permit, applicants must complete several steps.
First, they must file an ATF Form 4 application (available on the ATF website), which includes photographs, fingerprint cards, and payment of a $200 transfer tax.
Individuals purchasing a suppressor must undergo an FBI background check and obtain a special federal license to own such a device. This is the same background check performed on all prospective buyers by federally licensed firearms dealers.
Upon approval, the suppressor is transferred from the seller to the buyer. ATF approval registers the suppressor to the applicant in a federal database.
Dahl said it takes four to six months for the ATF to process a transfer application but suppressor activists say this process can take much longer, up to 14 months.
Dave Wessell, owner of Great Guns, near Traverse City, said his customers ask questions about the legalities of suppressor use in Michigan every day.
Great Guns is one of the few shops in the area that sell suppressors.
Wessell said a big reason for this is because unlike other shops, Great Guns has a fingerprinting kiosk on-site to allow suppressor applicants to take care of all the ATF requirements up-front, rather than having to go to the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Office.
Many customers have complained about the inconvenience and high cost of the process, Wessell said, as well as the length of time it takes for ATF to approve the application.
Despite these obstacles, however, interest in suppressor use is growing throughout the country.
Suppressor sales exploding
Since the federal law change, sales of suppressors in the United States have more than doubled.
Knox Williams, president of the American Suppressor Association, said in 2015 there were around 140,000 to 150,000 applications for a suppressor license.
In the first six months of 2016 — the most recent data available —there were around 300,000 applications.
The two most common suppressors that people buy are for .22- and .30-caliber rifles.
The average cost of a suppressor depends on the caliber and features that a user wants, but they generally range from $500 to $1,000, Williams said.
Currently, 42 states allow private citizens to own suppressors, with the eight holdouts being Hawaii, California, Illinois, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Delaware.
In 40 of the states that allow suppressor use, hunters can also use them in the field, with Vermont and Connecticut prohibiting this use.
Williams said there are common myths associated with the use of suppressors, chief among them that they completely silence the weapon, contributing to fears about their use by mass shooters and poachers.
Even with a suppressor, Williams said the noise emitted by a large-caliber firearm still is quite loud, resembling a “jackhammer hitting cement.”
“You still absolutely hear the gunshot,” Williams said. “You have a controlled explosion happening right next to your face but (suppressor use) makes a big difference. It makes shooting a much more pleasant experience.”
Williams also noted that suppressors reduce recoil, making them well suited for training purposes, as the shooter is able to focus more on fundamentals rather than anticipating the discharge.
Hearing benefits of suppressor use
In most of the states where civilian suppressor use isn’t allowed, advocates are lobbying with legislators to make them legal primarily on the basis of hearing safety.
In March, 2017, the National Hearing Conservation Association’s Task Force on Prevention of Noise-Induced Hearing Loss from Firearm Noise stated that “using firearms equipped with suppressors” is one of “several strategies (that) can be employed to reduce the risk of acquiring NIHL and associated tinnitus from firearm noise exposure.”
Michael Stewart, a lifelong hunter and senior audiology professor at Central Michigan University, said widespread use of firearms for recreational pursuits is one of the leading causes of noise-induced hearing loss in the United States.
Reports indicate that more than 70 percent of hunters never wear hearing protection while in the field and about half report not consistently wearing protection at the shooting range.
Stewart said hearing loss and tinnitus can occur even after a single exposure, especially if that exposure occurs in an enclosed area, such as a hunting blind, which can increase the duration of the noise from 2-5 milliseconds to 70-100 milliseconds.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration sets a 140-decibel sound pressure level (SPL) threshold as the point at which sound can become harmful to hearing.
Small caliber rifles produce a peak decibel level from 140 to 145, while large-caliber rifles, pistols and shotguns have decibels ranges from 150 to 170.
Stewart said suppressors don’t reduce the sound by as much as some of their advertisements claim but they have been found to lower SPL by 7 to 32 decibels, which on the high end is similar to the reduction achieved by wearing personal hearing protection such as ear muffs or plugs.
He said the use of subsonic ammunition with a suppressor maximizes the potential reduction in sound pressure.
While not practical in the field, Stewart said subsonic ammunition is an adequate substitute for supersonic ammunition at the shooting range.
Another benefit of suppressor use at the range is the reduction in sound pollution that neighbors have to endure, Stewart added.
Stewart concluded that the combined use of hearing protection devices, suppressors and subsonic ammunition (when possible) is ideal for mitigating hearing loss from gunfire.
He said this applies not only to hunters and target shooters, but military and police personnel, as well.
“The bottom line is that suppressors have the potential to save a lot of hearing,” Stewart said.
Use in hunting
In Michigan, there are no restrictions on the use of suppressors for hunting any game, any time of year, said Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement Division Lt. Tom Wanless.
“As long as you have legal access to a suppressor, you can hunt with that suppressor,” Wanless said.
Prevailing fears expressed by suppressor detractors that they would be used by poachers to take game more discretely have been found so far to be unfounded.
Wanless said he’s unaware of any incidents involving poachers using suppressors, although he added it may be too early to determine the potential for this happening in the future.
“It may take a few more years before we see more (suppressors) out there,” Wanless said. “So far, it doesn’t appear they have any impact on anything.”
Stewart suggests hunters use both suppressors and personal hearing protection while in the field but some outdoorsmen have questioned if they would be able to hear approaching game with earplugs in.
Fortunately, Stewart said there are high-fidelity hearing protection devices available that let softer sounds through while blocking out the harmful sound pressure produced by the shot.
Future of suppressors in Michigan
Amy Trotter, deputy director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs, said a number of their members have expressed concerns about the use of suppressors, especially pertaining to the rumors they would be used for poaching.
To educate themselves on the facts about suppressors, members of MUCC met with conservation groups, the DNR and American Suppressor Association during a demonstration day.
It quickly became apparent during the demonstration that suppressors don’t completely silence the fire — a misconception spread by some politicians in the wake of the mass shooting in Las Vegas.
As for the potential that suppressors could make the poacher’s job easier, Trotter said they are very sensitive to this concern, which is why they lobbied to make stricter penalties for illegally taking deer, basing the fine on the animal’s antler point count.
MUCC officials, as well as the American Suppressor Association, have been advocating to ease over-regulation of the federal suppressor permitting process.
Trotter said there is pending legislation to achieve this goal but with the unpredictable nature of national politics, it’s difficult to say when Congress will take the bill up for discussion and a vote.
Trotter said their efforts to reduce the federal red tape associated with suppressor use came about as a result of grassroots interest by their members.
She said any member who would like to contribute to the conversation about MUCC’s suppressor policy can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.