Name one commonly available consumer product that’s as loud as a gun. OK, other than a guitar amplifier. Or a chainsaw. The fact that guns are sold without silencers—damaging the hearing of millions of people—is bad enough. The fact that you have to pay $200 to the United States Government to go through a separate approval process that takes months and puts your name on a gun registry to get a license to own a silencer is absurd. Beyond that, under Title 11, Chapter 11-47,  Section 11-47-20 of Rhode Island law, possession of silencer is punishable by a mandatory sentence of no less than one year and one day in prison. And no more guns for you. And why is that, then?

A TTAG reader recently suggested that the silencer portion of the 1934 National Firearms Act (the Mother of All U.S. Gun Control Legislation) was added to protect land owners from stealthy poachers. More recently, silencer critics have silenced critics of anti-silencer legislation by voicing concerns about criminals using silencers to find their inner James Bond. I mean, commit heinous crimes.

Stuff and nonsense. As commentator Chris Dunn points out below, a silencer doesn’t actually silence a gun. It reduces its noise to more-or-less acceptable levels. As far as criminal sneakiness is concerned, your average silencer is about as easy to conceal as a large potted plant.

But they do dramatically reduce the risk of serious hearing loss, for both the shooter and anyone within immediate earshot. Because guns are DAMN LOUD.

Sounds is measured in decibels (db for short). The threshold of human hearing is 0 db. A normal conversation generates around 60 db. The same conversation in a restaurant kicks it up 10 db to 70 db. Not to worry; potential hearing damage doesn’t start ’til 85 db, and that’s being conservative.

At 120 db. bad things happen to your hearing, and your ears tell you so. A police or ambulance siren clocks in a 120 db., so cover your ears.

A .22 LR rifle generates 134 decibels of sound. That’s only six db. less than a jet engine at takeoff speed. As you can imagine, it gets worse—a LOT worse—from there. Courtesy m1911.org, here’s the rest of the firearms db destruction data:

150 .410 shotgun
152 .22 LR pistol
153 20 gauge shotgun
155 .223 rifle
155 .25 pistol
156 12 gauge shotgun
156 .30-.30 rifle
156 .308 rifle
156 .44 Special revolver
157 .22 Magnum pistol
157 .45 ACP pistol
158 .380 ACP pistol
158 .38 Special revolver
159 .30-06
160 9mm Para pistol
163 .41 Magnum revolver
164 .357 Magnum revolver
164 .44 Magnum revolver

Folks, that’s outside. Shoot any of these guns in an enclosed environment, whether that’s a gun range with concrete walls or (God forbid) inside your own home, and you can EASILY generate over 170 db.

A single shot without ear protection—just one—can cause permanent hearing loss. As in forever.

Even if you’re wearing ear protection, how good is it? Fact: prolonged exposure to any noise above 90 dB can cause gradual hearing loss. Fact: regular exposure of more than one minute to any noise above 103 db risks permanent hearing loss. One minute.

And that’s not to mention the possibility of creating tinnitus: a constant ringing in the ears. Constant. As in every waking minute of your life.

There’s a simple solution to this problem: a silencer. Current add-on firearms noise reduction technology can lower the sound of even the loudest weapon to a safe level. Thanks to companies like Advanced Armament, the effectiveness of firearms noise suppression devices continues to increase—even as the cost comes down.

Why in the world states mandate stupid ass “safety devices” like limited capacity magazines, chamber loaded indicators and 10 friggin’ pound trigger pulls when they aren’t prepared to mandate acceptable noise levels for firearms? It’s perverse.

The idea of government-mandated anything rankles a lot of people for a lot of reasons. And the law of unintended consequences applies. If guns were limited to certain db levels, physics tells us that their manufacturers would have to compromise something to achieve the safety standard: concealability, muzzle velocity, bullet size, etc. At least initially.

For most enthusiasts, lethality when needed is more important than potential hearing damage. They reckon if you’re too stupid to wear ear protection when shooting (see: YouTube), that’s your problem. You can’t fix stupid, and you can’t legislate away its ill effects.

But we already have government interference in firearms noise levels. Remember the silencer tax? Why not reverse it? If you want to shoot a gun that’s loud enough to damage or destroy your hearing and the hearing of people in close proximity, fair enough. Pay extra for it.

It should also be said that an industry-wide reduction in the noise levels produced by firearms would revolutionize the business. Once guns lost their single most obvious drawback, an entire new population of shooters would join the firearms fold. Which is why gun control advocates don’t want to see their widespread adoption.

Ironic eh? The very people who claim to want to regulate guns for our protection won’t regulate guns for our protection.

Anyway, short of emailing your local pol arguing in favor of government interference in the free market, there is something you can do to help yourself and your fellow enthusiast. If enough gun buyers opt for silencers, guns will gradually evolve in the direction of greater sonic safety. So do what I can’t do: buy a silencer and use it.

15 Responses to The Case for Mandatory Gun Silencers

    • What is the practical difference between a suppressed gun and a gun that fires at a lower noise level? Either way the potential victims can’t hear it well enough to get away from the bad guy. There is no reason to make a distinction, or demand that gun manufacturers re-invent the wheel.

  1. The idea of a built-in silencer without a threaded barrell is terrific. However, most likely the NY or RI or CA legislature would deem the firearm too heavy, too lengthy, or some other absurd reason.

    Too many politicians feel the silencer is the tool of the urban sniper. Not a worthy hearing protection device.

  2. My state (Washington) prohibits the use of "any contrivance or device for suppressing the noise of any firearm." Even if you have the tax stamp from the BATFE. On the bright side (I guess) violations of Washington's RCW 9.41.250 are only misdemeanors, but if you get caught you'll lose the suppressor AND the gun it was attached to.

    So I can't have a suppressor. But thanks to the benevolence of certain friends in other states, however, I've got a bit of trigger time on several suppressed handguns. For the reasons below, I agree with RF that legalizing them would be a good thing.

    First off, they're not 'silencers.' They don't make a gun whisper-quiet; they just make them a lot less loud. The only silent, or nearly silent, firearms are purpose-built Welrod pistols and .45 Lee-Enfields and the like. If you shoot somebody with a 'suppressed' firearm, it will still make noise.

    I don't have any objective way to measure them, but the suppressed Beretta .22 (with subsonic ammunition) was about as loud as a good air rifle; maybe a little quieter because it lacks the noise of the air rifle's spring piston. A suppressed 9mm Beretta, firing special (and otherwise useless) subsonic ammo was a little louder than the suppressed .22, and the suppressed H&K USP .45 was about as loud as a very vigorous hand-clap. To my ears, as yet undamaged by decades of stringently hearing-protected recreational shooting, the .45 made a comfortable racket but is still noticeably quieter than a non-suppressed bolt-action rifle firing standard-velocity .22 long rifle. (I use this for reference since a .22 rifle is about the only gun that isn't positively painful when someone busts a cap without warning me to put my ears on.)

    All three guns were perfectly safe and comfortable to shoot (outdoors, at least) without having to use any hearing protection. Indoors? I never had the chance to shoot any of them indoors, but I would probably put my ears on anyway unless I were only going to shoot a handful of rounds. And if I had a suppressed pistol and an indoor shooting range, why would I only shoot a handful of rounds?

    But (getting back to my point) most bad guys wouldn't get any benefit from suppressors because of their utilitarian disadvantages. Detachable suppressors aren't made of porcelain, but they're much more fragile than the guns they attach to. The quietest ones must be refilled with water (or, if you're an SOG badass, urine) every dozen rounds or so.

    And suppressed firearms are not, for practical purposes, concealable. A suppressed .380 subcompact, at eight inches in length, would be only a little bit easier to conceal than a long-slide .45 ACP. And your suppressed 1911 .45 ACP, while a darling to shoot at the range, would only be a little bit easier to conceal than a folding beach chair.

    Revolvers? Forget suppressed revolvers. The gap between the cylinder and the forcing cone lets out lots of superheated, supersonic gasses that the suppressor cannot contain, and as a result the gun is still loud as hell. I suppose a 'gas seal' revolvers like an antique Russian Nagant could work with a suppressor, but I'd be stumped as to why anyone would bother trying.

    And what about suppressed rifles and shotguns? Suppressed high-powered rifles offer relatively few criminal benefits; the suppressors are quite large and the rifles are still loud because of the supersonic bullet. I may be wrong, but I don't think that a practical suppressed shotgun has ever been developed. If it ever is, it will have a suppressor the size and weight of a SCUBS tank, and it still won't be very quiet anyway. Good luck cleaning the plastic wad shreds out of the baffles. In any case rifles and shotguns account for only a tiny percentage of the guns used in crimes anyway.

    So I'm with RF on this one. Legal suppressors could prevent hundreds of thousands of avoidable hearing injuries among law-abiding citizens, but I don't think they would have a noticeable impact on the criminal misuse of guns. They don't make guns 'silent', they don't increase lethality (unlike fully automatic fire) or require special training for safe use (ditto) and they make concealment very impractical.

  3. Building a quieter gun is not illegal, but it is against the laws of physics. At least for now.

    Guns as we know them use chemical energy to rapidly create high-pressure combustion gasses in the contained volume of space behind a bullet. The bullet is propelled forward because the gasses are at much higher pressure than the atmosphere in front of the bullet. How much pressure? 20,000 to 50,000 psi for handguns, and even more for rifles. Once the bullet leaves the muzzle, these gasses blast out at well faster than the speed of sound, and this now-released explosion creates a shock wave of pressure (which equals sound) which is what we hear. Suppressors quiet the sound by catching and containing most of the gasses until their pressure and velocity are reduced.

    As long as bullets are propelled by high-pressure gasses, they will be loud, and any technology to reduce this noise will have to manage the propellant gasses.

    It is technically possible to accelerate bullets without gasses, using magnetic fields as 'rail guns' do. These avoid the 'muzzle blast' effect, but they are experimental and impractical and make an unholy racket for plenty of other technical reasons.

  4. Another advantage to shooting with a silencer; you can hear your bullet hit the target, which connects you with it in a way I never thought possible. It's lovely. I have a .22 silcencer and really don't enjoy shooting anything else anymore. Farago's right on this one.

  5. Last weekend, I chanced across an extreme shooting show on one of the 900 mostly useless channels we have. Those amazingly accurate shooters didn't appear to be wearing ear protection. I wonder if they stuff wax in their ears or something.

  6. There are ways to make guns less noisy. The easiest is to use a smaller powder charge and longer barrel. The smaller powder charge means less pressure and less noise. The longer barrel increases the amount of heat lost from the expanding gases and much lower pressure when the bullet exits.

    Integral silencers are also available, but they require the same routine ATF authorization and $200 tax as a detachable silencer.

    I have been working for years to amend the WA law banning silencer use. I have made very little progress for one simple reason. Most WA gun owners think that silencers are illegal, are bad for their image, have no moral use, or have some other lame or irrational reason to oppose their use. This is the reason why the legislators (Pedersen and Kline) that decide whether or not to give the silencer use bill a hearing in committee let the bill die each session. If no one is going to give a damn about silencers, then they won’t either. We reap what we sow.

  7. They have rail-mounted muzzle brakes; why not rail-mount partial suppressors ?
    A heavier bullet usually means lower noise, and much ammo is rated subsonic.

    The dB sound scale is a log scale (arithmetic of exponents).
    One dB is a large change in acoustic energy.

    Don’t use a lane next to a 40 or 357 unless you have quality muffs.
    Noise cancellation technology might be impractical for pistols,
    but maybe not for rifles.
    My ears have been ringing since VN; you don’t want that.

    What happened to the old “ear valves” that passed speech,
    but blocked impulse. They could be electronic now.

    I’m looking forward to revival or the rocket-rounds for pistol.

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  9. Donal Fagan may be onto something about how to make a quieter gun. Chris Dumm says that the (Washington) prohibits the use of “any contrivance or device for suppressing the noise of any firearm.” Something in the manner of a Gamo Whisper, a pistol could be made with a non-detachable muffler, where, say, it partially disassembles for cleaning, but can’t be detached. Then it isn’t a contrivance or device for suppressing the noise of a firearm, it is the firearm itself, which is marginally quieter, and safer for human ears.
    Maybe the first use should be in Target pistols, in say, .22 or .17, something that is patently and obviously not an assassin’s weapon. I picture taking the media out to the range, something like the Vegas Shot Show, and demonstrating the weapons without earplugs, compared to regular pistols with earplugs.

  10. Oh, and .22lr in a rifle produces 134 decibels? Waaaaaaaaaaay back in 1970 in the boy scouts we shot .22lr in single shots WITHOUT hearing protection. Yeah, I’m amazed we did that now, too. Part of the reason for my tinnitus.
    30 years later, I bought a .22 rifle and took it to an indoor range. I wore earplugs but the guy in the neighboring lane had some sort of hand cannon that rattled my teeth with every shot. Ever since, I wear muffs AND plugs.

  11. Tinnitus is not the worst thing that happens. Have had that for over 20 years. Read up on hyperaccusis. Its like having ultra sensitive ears. When its really bad just swalowing hurts. Have had to wear earplugs anytime outside, in the shower etc. Look after your ears guys. If you already have tinnitus that is a major warning sign. Take care.

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