Politics & Government

GOP still hoping to pass gun noise suppressor measure

A handgun with a silencer and two magazines are shown at a gun range in Atlanta. For decades, buying a silencer for a firearm has been as difficult as buying a machine gun, requiring a background check that can take close to a year.
A handgun with a silencer and two magazines are shown at a gun range in Atlanta. For decades, buying a silencer for a firearm has been as difficult as buying a machine gun, requiring a background check that can take close to a year. AP

In the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, House Republicans continue to quietly advocate legislation that would make it easier to buy suppressors to muffle gun noise.

The effort contrasts with the GOP’s more public stance.

Republican leaders are making a point of seeking to ban devices that helped the Las Vegas shooter convert his firearms into automatic shooting machines. Gunman Stephen Paddock killed 58 people and wounded hundreds October 1 when he fired on concert-goers from his hotel room.

The Republicans’ dual-track strategy shows how the party is struggling to meet the demands of its pro-gun rights base on the political right while battling a public relations nightmare from the left.

In interviews with McClatchy, House Republican lawmakers and leadership aides confirmed they were still hopeful they could hold a floor vote on the Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement, or SHARE, Act, a major legislative package primarily intended to reauthorize conservation and wildlife programs that benefit outdoorsmen.

Passing the measure would be a win for most Republicans as well as for some Democrats who represent hunter-friendly districts. But advancing the package with the provision to loosen restrictions on purchasing noise suppressors for firearms, known as the Hearing Protection Act, might not be great for political optics. Democrats are clamoring for more gun control laws, not less.

Republicans are sensitive to the mood. At a leadership press conference Wednesday, Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., advocated for new rules on so-called “bump stocks.” He and others are hoping, though, that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives handles the matter; otherwise, Congress could be faced with having to take another weighty political vote.

On its face, the easy political option would be to stay the course on banning bump stocks and move the SHARE Act forward without the suppressor provision.

So far, that doesn’t appear to be the strategy.

House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who shepherded the SHARE Act through his panel in September, said it was “premature” to assume the bill could not pass with the Hearing Protect Act attached.

In an interview with McClatchy, Bishop slammed the “inaccurate narrative” that shortening the waiting period for suppressors would result in a rash of silent mass shootings. He said sound mufflers do not render firearms completely silent and there’s no indication that the shooter in Las Vegas would have done more damage if he’d been using a suppressed weapon.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Wednesday introduced legislation to close what she calls an automatic weapons loophole that allows gun owners to convert semi-automatic rifles into rapid-fire automatic machines. The gunman who killed 59 people and injured more than 500 others in Las Vegas, Nevada had a dozen guns that were outfitted with a “bump stock” device.

“It would be nice if Congress for once stood up and said, ‘legislation should be made by members of the legislature who know what they’re doing, not special interest groups that are trying to shape the debate with false information,’” Bishop said.

Advocates such as Bishop say the Hearing Protection Act is a public health initiative aimed about protecting hunters’ hearing. It currently takes years, and hundreds of dollars, to purchase and secure the license to own and operate a suppressor. It should only require a basic background check to obtain one, supporters argue.

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., the lead sponsor of both the Hearing Protection Act and the larger SHARE Act, is hard of hearing in his left ear as a result of not having access to proper noise suppressors as he grew up hunting with his father.

Also the co-chairman of the bipartisan Congressional Sportsman’s Caucus, Duncan agreed that the Hearing Protection Act should remain a part of the SHARE Act.

“I personally think it would be a mistake to take it out,” he said. “It had nothing to do with Las Vegas. It would be buying into the rhetoric … which has been refuted. I believe the facts stand for themselves.”

Of course, Republicans would also be happy to score a win for one of the largest financial backers, the National Rifle Association, which has championed deregulating gun suppressors for years and finally sees an opportunity for victory with a Republican now in the White House.

“The Hearing Protection Act is a top priority for the NRA,” NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said in a statement to McClatchy a few days before the Las Vegas shooting. “Until this important legislation is signed into law, the NRA will continue to debunk the gun control lobby’s misinformation campaign and educate members of Congress on the facts.”

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday regarding the future of the SHARE Act.

Jeff Crane, the executive director of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus Foundation, was also unavailable for comment on what discussions have been taking place regarding the SHARE Act.

Duncan and Bishop said they had not spoken to Republican leadership in the 10 days since the Las Vegas shooting. Sportsmen’s Caucus co-chairman Gene Green, D-Texas, said he had not yet spoken to Duncan about ways to move forward.

A handful of lawmakers invested in the SHARE Act’s success were confident before the massacre that the bill would be on the House floor in a matter of days, but several House Republican leadership aides denied this was the case. They explained they were still in a “member education period” at the time of the shooting, and this would continue in the coming weeks.

The aides insisted there were a number of outstanding issues with the bill as written, the suppressor provision being just one of them.

“Like with any large piece of legislation, there are number of different policy questions to work through with individual members, and we’ve been having those conservations,” one staffer wrote in an email. “Obviously, in light of recent events, we want to be sensitive to any additional questions members may have when it comes to any gun-related legislation, and we are working through those as we always do with any major bill.”

In the meantime, Green wasn’t optimistic Republicans would meet Democrats halfway to secure the SHARE Act’s passage.

“They’ve had a hesitancy to do that,” he said of Republicans’ willingness to give in on gun provisions. “I hope it can pass.”

Emma Dumain: 202-383-6126, @Emma_Dumain

Donald Trump Jr. joins the CEO of SilencerCo to test out gun silencers and discuss his support for the Hearing Protection Act, which was introduced to the U.S. Senate in January, 2017.

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