Does America really have a problem with “unregulated, homemade silencers”? According to a new article by the Michael Bloomberg-backed anti-gun website The Trace and the website The Verge, the answer is yes.
Silencers, otherwise known as suppressors, are among the most highly regulated gun accessories in the US. Under federal law, consumers must apply for a license to purchase them. The process involves paying a fee to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and submitting to extensive screening. It can take more than a year to get an answer. Americans eager to skip the wait, though, have a shortcut: tap one of the dozens of online retailers selling de facto suppressor parts and build their own.
What exactly are “de facto suppressor parts”? Basically, things that aren’t suppressors but could be used to make one. And as it turns out, trying to ban everything someone could use to build a homemade suppressor isn’t easy. In fact, it’s really not even possible.
Peter Tilem, a criminal defense attorney in New York with experience defending gun crimes cases, put it this way: “You can’t control people taking legitimate items and making them into something illegitimate. Sudafed is readily available; it’s also a precursor to methamphetamine, but we can’t ban Sudafed.” Homemade suppressors, like rubber bands used to make bump stocks and modified assault weapons, provide an avenue around restrictions.
Building a suppressor at home is, in theory, perfectly legal. Federal law requires that anyone who does so still register the device, and submit to a background check before construction. But the registration process, which is electronic, can be more than twice as fast as acquiring a completed suppressor from a manufacturer.
So, it’s not illegal to build your own suppressor, as long as you jump through all the hoops and hurdles first. The items used to construct suppressors are widely available for lawful purposes, and there’s really no way to ban them all. What’s an anti-gun politician supposed to do? Double down on a ban anyway, apparently.
Silencers received renewed attention following June’s Virginia Beach shooting, in which a gunman killed twelve city employees with a suppressed firearm. In response, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) introduced a bill that would ban the attachments outright. At the same time, a Republican-sponsored bill would strip back existing regulation of silencers, eliminating all screening beyond a background check.
Representative Watson Coleman said in an email that the ease of building a silencer at home is no excuse for congressional inaction. “Our complete paralysis when it comes to keeping maximum-damage weapons and devices like suppressors out of the market — whether they’re assembled in a factory or easily constructed at home — is disgusting,” she wrote.
Whether or not a bill is passed, the ATF has no way of preventing people from building silencers from legally acquired parts, and no way to track how many individuals illegally bypass the registration process. Instead, they rely on an honor system buttressed by fear of surprise raids.
Rep. Watson can think it’s “disgusting” that we haven’t banned suppressors outright, but she still can’t explain how a ban would be enforced against homemade suppressors, or how her legislation would actually prevent criminals from illegally making or acquiring suppressors. Her entire argument is based on emotion because the facts just get in the way. The truth is, suppressors really aren’t that difficult to make, aren’t used in many crimes, and are almost impossible to regulate once you get outside of the commercial market. Watson’s ban on suppressors might “feel good” to her, but it wouldn’t do any good at all.