With gun sales plummeting after Donald Trump’s election victory, firearms manufacturers have set their sights on another way to boost business: a contentious proposal that would make the purchase of suppressors — more commonly known as silencers — easier and cheaper in the United States.
Trump hasn’t endorsed the bill but advocates, led by one of his largest campaign donors, the National Rifle Association, think they have found their most important ally in the fight: the president’s son.
Donald Trump Jr., an avid hunter who credits his Czech grandfather with getting him interested in the outdoors, headed up his father’s Second Amendment Coalition advisory group and counts himself a huge fan of the proposal, even pledging his father’s support in a video with the founder of the nation’s largest suppressor manufacturer, SilencerCo.
“I love your product,” Trump Jr. says in the 38-minute video interview with SilencerCo CEO Joshua Waldron that was recorded before the election. “It’s just a great instrument There’s nothing bad about it at all. It makes total sense. It’s where we should be going.”
Supporters say the bill introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate – named the Hearing Protection Act – would guard the hearing of millions of hunters who don’t use earmuffs or plugs to shield their ears from their guns’ loud reports, which have been proved to cause hearing loss.
Opponents say, however, that reducing the sound is dangerous because potential victims won’t know to run or hide from shooters if they can’t hear the firing. They say making silencers easier to buy would benefit urban street gangs, whom quieter gunshots would allow to escape quick detection.
Trump Jr.’s critics speculate he may be involved in a business that makes or distributes silencers, though those who know him say he’s merely interested in the bill because of his love for the outdoors. Trump Jr. did not respond to messages left at the Trump Organization, the family business he now runs with his brother Eric.
Donald Trump Jr. is a member of the Boone and Crockett Club, a hunting group founded more than a century ago by Theodore Roosevelt and named for Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. He was photographed with his brother with dead animals, including an elephant or at least its tail, on a hunting trip to Zimbabwe. And he helped his father select a secretary for the Interior Department, which manages lands, wildlife and national parks.
Waldron says he’s known Trump Jr. from industry events for years, long before his father ran for president. While campaigning for his father, Trump Jr. contacted Waldron when he was in Salt Lake City, where the company is based, and they met for breakfast. They agreed to record a video together that would promote Trump and silencers.
Silencers aren’t as effective in real life as the ones portrayed in James Bond movies. They may reduce the noise of a gunshot by an average of 20 to 35 decibels – similar to wearing earmuffs or earplugs – but the sound can still be as loud as a jackhammer, according to multiple studies. Hearing damage can still occur with a silencer, and shooters are encouraged to wear hearing protection while using them.
At a recent demonstration at the NRA’s small private gun range in Fairfax, Virginia, outside Washington, observers wore both earplugs and earmuffs as they watched an employee fire rounds from four weapons – an AR-15 rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun, a .22 LR and a 9mm handgun – with and without a silencer attached. Even with two layers of hearing protection, the sounds were loud, although different with and without silencers. The protection equipment didn’t appear to lower the noise much, if at all.
In 2008, about 18,000 silencers – with price tags that can top $1,000 – were purchased in the United States. Last year, that had increased to 200,000. If the bill passes, the number is likely to skyrocket.
“This legislation is nothing more than a transparent giveaway to the gun industry to help sell more silencers and increase profits,” said Chelsea Parsons, vice president, guns and crime policy, for the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
The White House declined to comment, beyond saying that President Trump had not taken a position on the bill.
For eight years, gun rights groups fought President Barack Obama’s proposed firearms restrictions that primarily came after 20 first-graders were killed in a 2012 shooting massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. But now, with Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress, they are confident they can change gun laws and regulations.
The NRA backed Trump’s unorthodox candidacy nearly from the start, even when other conservative groups declined, and it became one of his top donors, contributing $30 million. When the president met with conservative groups at the White House during his second week in office to tout Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, NRA leader Wayne LaPierre was seated at Trump’s immediate left.
Before he ran for president, Trump, a gun owner who has said he doesn’t hunt, had said he supported a waiting period for gun purchases and a ban on assault weapons. But after he entered the race he appeared to change his views and spoke forcefully about gun rights regularly on the campaign trail.
Currently, silencers are regulated under the National Firearms Act of 1934 and sold to those who are eligible to purchase firearms, pay a $200 fee, submit fingerprints and pass a background check that advocates say can take up to nine months because of a backlog.
Supporters of the bill want consumers to buy silencers the same way they can purchase many guns — after an instant background check and without the $200 fee, which hasn’t changed in 80 years and has become over the decades an increasingly smaller deterrent to sales.
Opponents of the bill say the proposed change would lead to the same problems the U.S. has with firearms: People would be permitted to buy them from private sellers without a background check, and silencers could more easily be diverted to illegal markets where a person buys one for someone who can’t pass a background check.
Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., who introduced the Hearing Protection Act, said that if he’d had access to a silencer during his lifetime of shooting duck, deer and doves, the hearing in his left ear might have been saved. “It just doesn’t make any sense to regulate suppressors the way we do,” he said “You see how cumbersome this is to the American consumer.”
Tinnitus – ringing in the ears – and hearing loss are common afflictions for recreational shooters and hunters, especially those who fail to wear ear protection because they want to hear the sounds of prey.
“Our opponents like to use the word ‘silencer’ either because they’re trying to mislead people or they’re simply ignorant of the facts,” said Chris Cox, the longtime chief lobbyist and principal political strategist for the Institute for Legislative Action, the NRA’s lobbying arm. “Anyone who’s ever been around suppressors knows that it’s not a silencer. They watch too many movies if they believe that they’re truly silent.”
Opponents say reducing noise and muzzle flash even marginally can make a critical difference to those who need to hear the gunfire, especially in cities, where other sounds could muffle the noise. They include potential victims, who need to run or hide when shooting begins, bystanders, who could report a possible crime, and law enforcement officers, who need to know an exact location.
“The sound of a bullet is basically the way people are able to take shelter and run for cover. That’s a very important public-safety measure,” said Lucia McBath, whose son, Jordan Davis, 17, was killed in Jacksonville, Florida, in November 2012, and who serves as faith and community outreach leader for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Every Town for Gun Safety.
It’s not just about sound. Supporters like that silencers also reduce recoil, which leads to improved accuracy; opponents worry that same feature would allow criminals to fire more accurate and quicker follow-up shots.
Forty-two states allow the private ownership of silencers. Forty states allow hunting with a silencer. Duncan’s bill would not change state laws.
Waldron, who founded SilencerCo in 2008, said the National Firearms Act nearly destroyed the silencer industry because of the high cost and burdensome regulations. But Americans began to purchase the devices again in the 1990s, when inflation made the fee seem more affordable. The original $200 fee would be equivalent to $3,658 in today’s dollars.
Waldron, who suffers from ringing in his ears from shooting firearms, said he had supported Trump for president from the start simply because he knew Trump would be an advocate for hunting and shooting. Waldron attended a handful of fundraisers and organized a campaign rally attended by 1,000 at the Utah state Capitol.
He said those who opposed the bill were showing “woeful ignorance” because silencers “are not tools to do nefarious things,” they are merely a safety issue.
“They try to put out any argument that they can,” he said. “Folks who view this as a gun issue . . . they say, ‘Let me find a way to oppose this.’ ”