Ask Foghorn: How to Buy a Silencer

 

Some guy on Reddit asked me:

How difficult is it to get one of these stamps? I don’t know why I always thought it was damn near impossible but I am seeing people with them all over the place. One a scale of 1 – 10 how difficult is it to get a can? And do you need a stamp for every one you buy or just one stamp saying you can buy silencers?

It’s not difficult, just annoying and time consuming. Grab a cup of coffee, because this is going to be a long one…

A silencer (also known as a suppressor, but both the inventor and the ATF call it a “silencer”) is a special type of tube that is placed on the end of your barrel and quiets the noise produced by the round going off. It does this by slowing down and cooling the expanding gases which are propeling the projectile down your barrel before venting the gasses – the quickly escaping gasses being the root cause of the report of the firearm.

Silencers in the United States are generally legal to posess provided that you go through the proper procesures. They fall under a class of item known as a “National Firearms Act item” or “NFA item,” the same category as machine guns, grenade launchers and other very fun things. As far as the federal government is concerned, as long as you submit some paperwork, go through a background check and pay a $200 tax you’re good to go. The individual states on the other hand have the ability to selectively ban these items from their borders. As such the legality of silencers in your specific state will vary.

NFA items are required to be registered with the ATF with supporting paperwork of said registration to remain with the item (or readily accessible somewhere). The registration of new machine guns was halted in 1986, but everything else is still good to go. If you are purchasing a silencer you don’t need to worry about the initial registration as the manufacturer does that for you, but you do need to apply for the item to be transferred to you somehow and YOU need to make sure that the registration is up to date in terms of any change of address.

The process for purchasing and transferring a silencer is the same as if you were purchasing any other NFA item, meaning it is a gigantic bureaucratic pain in the ass. Don’t worry — I’ll take you through the process step by step.

Step 1 — Pick your can

Because of the massive annoyance of purchasing an NFA item you want to be absolutely sure that you pick the right one before investing months of your life. That means you need to very carefully select a silencer that suits your needs.

Silencers are designed to quiet the emissions from a specific caliber or set of calibers. The 762-SDN-6 from AAC, for example, is specifically designed for 7.62 NATO ammunition. That means it can safely handle the emissions from that cartridge without bursting or being unsafe to the shooter. But if you were to put the silencer on a gun with a little more power to it (like, say, 7mm Rem Mag) it may not be strong enough to contain the gasses and rupture. Trying to silence a 5.56 NATO rifle with a .22lr silencer would also have similarly idiotic results. If in doubt, the manufacturer will usually explicitly state the design capabilities of the equipment.

Therefore, the very first thing you need to do is figure out what the largest caliber you want to silence will be.

There is a “good news” side to this, though: silencers can handle lighter ammunition (both in terms of powder charge and bore diameter) with ease. That same can, the 762-SDN-6, can easily be fitted on a 5.56 NATO firearm and function correctly. Due to the difference in the diameter of the projectile the silencer won’t be quite as effective, but it will still help. Some.

Another consideration you need to make is how you plan to attach the silencer to the host weapon. Most AR-15 rifles are pre-threaded and have removable flash hiders installed on the muzzle, but most handguns and a lot of rifles either aren’t capable of accepting a silencer without a barrel change or are too thin to support the threads. For me, I fully admit that I ditched my favored Weatherby Vanguard Carbine as my primary hunting rifle because the barrel was too light to accept the proper threading.

The final consideration is for semi-automatic handguns. In order for most semi-autos to function they need to allow the barrel to move back and forth relatively freely, and slapping a chunk of metal on the end of the barrel will have a decidedly negative influence on this ability. Silencer manufacturers have developed a mechanism to allow the handgun to cycle properly, and it is commonly referred to as a “booster” (although AAC and others have some weird-ass name for it instead). The thing boils down to a spring loaded section of the silencer that allows the barrel to fully recoil before the weight of the silencer is added to the equation. If you have a tilting barrel design handgun you will need a booster, so be aware.

Silencers are notoriously difficult to buy, mainly because you can’t really try them before you buy them. But take it from someone who has fired more silencers than he can remember: they’re basically all the same. Find one that has the mounting options you want, a weight that you can live with, enough sound suppression to make you happy, and a length that you’re happy with and go for it.

Step 2 — Find a Dealer and the Short Wait

Now that you have a silencer all picked out and ready to go you need someone to transfer it to you. If you’re lucky enough to live down the block from a silencer manufacturer (who likes you) they might transfer it directly to you, but for the vast majority of us bums we will need a special type of FFL: an SOT.

SOT, or “Special Occupational Tax,” means that the dealer in question has paid a little extra to the ATF and in return they can transfer silencers to civilians. Regular FFLs can transfer silencers as well, but it takes a lot longer and is even more of a pain in the ass. So find an SOT.

If your SOT has the can in stock, REJOICE! If not, then they will have to get the can of your dreams from a distributor and that means some paperwork on their part.

Anytime a silencer transfers from one party to another, even if both of them are FFLs with SOTs and know the secret handshake, the ATF needs to get a form requesting the transfer and then approve it. The wait on this form is much shorter than the dreaded REAL wait, but it’s still a gigantic pain. Since there’s no background check or real work on the part of the ATF going on at this step they could computerize and automate this step, but they don’t. Because they’re idiots who hate us.

Once the forms come back for the initial transfer (or if you were lucky enough to have a dealer with one in stock) it’s time to fill out some paperwork.

Step 3 — Individual or Trust?

There are two ways to go about transferring a silencer so that you can use it: as an individual directly to you or to a trust in which you are a trustee.

The individual transfer is the “standard” method — the silencer is registered in your name, and you alone are allowed to own it. You personally are on the hook for the thing.

The other option is to transfer the silencer to a trust, which is a legal entity that can posess property in the United States. Since corporations are legally people in the eyes of the court the ATF is required to allow the transfer of silencers to trusts, which can be made up of either a single person or many people

The trust is THE WAY TO GO for silencers and any other NFA item, but being an idiot I decided to go the individual route. This guide will walk you through the process of purchasing a silencer as an individual, with another article to follow on transferring a silencer to a trust to follow after I talk to some lawyers.

Step 4 — Completing the Form 4

The ATF loves to assign numbers to their forms. Form 1 to make a firearm, form 4473 to transfer a non-NFA item, and a form 4 for the transfer of an NFA item. It looks daunting at first, but I’m going to take you line by line through this document.

NOTE: This form must be submitted IN DUPLICATE. If you filled it out from an online printout then you need to make sure you have two double-sided copies. If you sent away for the real deal from the ATF then it will come as a pre-perforated three sheet packet, the third sheet being the instructions (which you don’t need to submit — they already know that stuff).

Keep in mind, this is to transfer the silencer to an INDIVIDUAL. Just a helpful note, I filled out the application in all capitol letters and the ATF investigator seemed to appreciate the gesture.

  • 1. You need to check the box for the $200 stamp. $5 stamps are for a different type of registered NFA item, but silencers require the whole $200.
  • 2a. Your full legal name and home address.
  • 2b. The county in which your home address is a part.
  • 3a. The full legal name and address of your FFL or person transferring the silencer to you. Typically your FFL will helpfully fill this part out for you, but if not just make sure you get the legal name of the FFL correct.
  • 3b. The telephone number (including area code) of the FFL or person transferring the silencer.
  • 3c. If you are trying to transfer this silencer from a recently deceased member of your family (or anyone else) include their name, address and date of death here.
  • 3d. This is for if you are transferring the item to a trust or entity and you don’t live at the same place where the entity is registered. Like if you’re transferring the silencer to a gun shop you own but you don’t live on the premises.
  • 4a. The name of the entity that originally manufactured the silencer. This information is legally required to be engraved on the silencer somewhere, so copy down exactly what they put. Or, more accurately, what was on the paperwork (form 3) when the silencer was transferred to your FFL.
  • 4b. The type of NFA item being transferred. As much as you want to call it a suppressor or a can, the ATF needs you to write “silencer” in the box.
  • 4c. The caliber of the silencer. If it’s a shotgun silencer put the gague it was designed to work with.
  • 4d. The model of the silencer. Again, copy it exactly as what was on the paperwork (form 3) when the silencer was transferred to your FFL.
  • 4e. This is asking for barrel length, assuming you are transferring a machine gun or short barreled rifle or something. A silencer does not have a barrel (unless its an integrally suppressed thinger) so put “N/A” here.
  • 4f. The overall lenth of the silencer, measured from the extreme forward edge to the extreme rear edge.
  • 4g. The serial number exactly as written on the silencer.
  • 4h. This is just in case you wanted to further describe the thing. Not required.
  • 5. If you have an FFL this is where you would write your information. I’m going to assume you don’t have one, and even with my type 3 FFL I didn’t put anything. So unless you are a firearms dealer leave this one blank.
  • 6. If you had an SOT this is where you would put your information. Again, not going into this for the average joe.
  • 7 & 8. Need to be completed by your FFL/SOT. If they can’t figure it out then you might have a problem.
  • 9. This question is asking if your FFL/SOT is willing to share the information on the form with you, the person getting the shiny new can. They need to circle “do.”
  • 10, 11, 12. The signature, full name, title and date of the principal owner of the FFL/SOT. In other words, the actual guy whose name is on the license.
  • 13 & 14. Just like the questions on a form 4473 when you pick up a new rifle, except the answer to every sincle question needs to be “no.” Place a mark in that box. Unless, of course, you meet one of those criteria in which case you got some ‘splaining to do.
  • 15. Section 15 consists of three things to fill out: your name, the reason you want the silencer, and your signature. The ATF wants to know why you would want such an item in your posession, but in reality as long as you don’t put “mass murdering spree” you should be fine. There was a streak of Form 4s that went in a while ago with things like “chicks dig silencers” and “zombies” in this field and got approved, but I hear through the grapevine that the ATF is putting the brakes on that. To be safe I put “hearing protection,” but others indicate “all legal reasons” as a good phrase to write.
  • 16. You’re going to need two passport sized photographs for the ATF to look longingly into your eyes as they approve your tax stamp. Standard passport photos are perfect — you don’t even need to tell the nosy photographer what they’re really for if you don’t want.
  • 17. Chief Law Enforcement Officer sign-off. Let me break this one out into its own section…

Step 5 — Chief Law Enforcement Officer (CLEO) Sign-Off

Those of you who have an FFL (03 for curios and collectors, for example) already know about the Chief Law Enforcement Officer, but this form acts just a tad differently from the usuals.

The Chief Law Enforcement Officer is the head honcho for the police force for the COUNTY (or strange local equivalent) in which you reside. For me, that was Sheriff Stan Barry out in Fairfax County, VA.

The ATF requires that you have the CLEO for your home county physically put pen to paper and sign your forms before you can get your silencer. For those with an FFL normally we’re required to notify the CLEO by sending him a copy of the paperwork and a love note and the ATF requires no interaction on the CLEO’s part, but for an NFA item they need his John Hancock.

The idea behind the CLEO sign-off is that if you are a known troublemaker the CLEO has the ability to keep you from getting your silencer. The background check will turn up criminal convictions and arrests and stuff like that, but for those who are constantly getting a “slap on the wrist” from Johnny Law this is their opportunity to keep you from getting something more dangerous.

While the intentions of the requirement are noble, the execution is downright dictatorial. Some counties (like Fairfax) sign off on every form 4 that comes across their desk after a quick check of their records. Other counties (like Arlington, just next door) refuse to sign off on any NFA paperwork. At all. No ammount of whining and ganshing of teeth will make them change their stance. It has turned the CLEO sign-off into a de facto ban on NFA registration in non-NFA friendly counties.

There is a way around it, however: the trust.

For some complex legal reasons which I have not the faintest idea where to start researching, trusts do not need to get a CLEO sign off. They also don’t need to submit a photograph. Nor do they submit fingerprints. Some say that trusts also get approved quicker for transfers. It’s like the express lane for NFA item transfers. But more on that later.

In short, you need your CLEO to sign off on your papers. Both of them. The best option is to schedule a meeting to meet the CLEO face to face, but for the larger counties they may have some sort of bureaucratic process to take care of the sign-offs. Like Fairfax, where you submit the paperwork at the local county lock-up (a not so subtle allusion to where you’re going to go if you screw up?) and they mail you the completed forms in about a week.

Remember: you CANNOT submit your Form 4 to the ATF until your CLEO has signed off on the paperwork. In most cases, the CLEO will not mail your Form 4 directly to the ATF for you — you need to do that yourself.

Step 6 — Fingerprints

For individuals, the ATF requires you to submit TWO sets of fingerprints together with your duplicate forms. Having been fingerprinted more times than I can remember (service members and other former government employees can figure out why) its actually a pretty painless process.

You can’t take your own fingerprints. Well, you can, but its a pain in the ass. I have fond memories of practicing back in criminology class and getting quite good. The best method is to have your fingerprints taken by a properly equipped local police force using the standard FBI 10-print card. The ATF is nice enough to supply these through their website if you’re willing to wait a couple weeks for delivery, or your local LEOs may have a few on hand for you.

The actual process for being fingerprinted will vary by the specific department, but the best way to find out the process is by calling. NOT 911, call the non-emergency number they list on their website. In Arlington there are enough people being fingerprinted on a given day that they have a dedicated area of the office and staff detailed for that specific reason (they open at 1:30 PM Monday through Friday, by the way — get there early).

Keep in mind that you need two original cards, not one original and a photocopy.

Step 7 — Mail but Verify

It is your responsibility to mail off the forms, along with a check or other acceptable form of payment and all required documents, to the ATF.

In addition to the Form 4 and things listed on it, the ATF asked me to submit a “Certificate of Compliance” form, which basically states that you certify that you are not a nonimmigrant alien. It seems like every form I’ve submitted to the ATF this year (FFL renewal included) has required one of these, so I would print one out and send it in with your application just to be on the safe side. Here’s the document on the ATF’s website. This only needs to be done for individuals, not trusts.

Your packet to the ATF should include the following documents:

  • Completed Form 4 including CLEO sign-off (2 copies)
  • Completed FBI 10-print card (2 copies)
  • Passport photos (2 copies)
  • Certificate of Compliance
  • Check or Money Order for $200 payable to “Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives”

Before you seal that up, make a note of your silencer’s serial number. Trust me, it will come in handy. You’ll see in a second.

Now you need to send all of that to the following address:

National Firearms Act Branch
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
P.O. Box 530298
Atlanta, GA 30353-0298

If you don’t have all of the documents required to complete the transfer it may be months before you find out, so make double sure before sending it.

Step 8 — Indirect Observation

At this point the stamp is out of your hands. Right now it will take about 6 months for you to get your forms back from the ATF, and there is almost no way to know how long the wait is going to be. Almost.

Starting about a week after you mail your forms you can start calling the NFA branch at (304) 616-4500 to check on your application. They will ask for the serial number of the silencer, your name and the name of the entity (gun shop) transferring you the silencer. They will then tell you your application’s status.

Your application will progress through the following stages:

  • Check Cashed – They won’t actually tell you this one, but you can find out form your bank. This is a great indicator that they have your forms in hand.
  • Pending – They have your application and it is in line.
  • Approved – Your stamp has been issued.

If your application has an issue (like you forgot the Certificate of Compliance) the application will enter a “problem” status and the NFA Branch operator will be happy to tell you how to fix the issue. Or, at least, mine was. Your mileage may vary.

Each change in status will be associated with a date. For example, my forms were “Pending October 21″ for the longest time. You can use this date along with a wonderful website called nfatracker.com (where other applicants post their statuses and dates on NFA paperwork) to try and get an idea about when your stamp will be issued.

If you look at the latest “Approved” entries in their database you can see approximately when their applications first entered “Pending” status and determine based on your own “Pending” date how long the wait is. I also highly recommend you enter your data into the database as well, as more entries will give a better idea for others of what the wait time looks like.

Try not to annoy the operators — they’re nice people and they get lots of calls. Limit yourself to one call a month for the first four months, then one call a week after that at most.

Your application will be assigned to one of the examiners on staff, and while they won’t tell you the name of the examiner there’s a good chance the examiner will give you a call to chat if they find something odd or need clarification.

Step 9 — The Momentous Occasion Has Arrived

At some point, if you’ve led a good life, your stamp will be issued. It will be mailed, attached to ONE copy of your Form 4 and cancelled by the examiner (like cancelling a stamp when you mail a letter), directly to your gun shop or the person who is transferring you the silencer. It WILL NOT come to you.

When you pick up the silencer from your gun shop, you will need to fill out a form 4473 just like any other time you buy a gun. Except this time you don’t need to have a NICS check performed on you — you just sign the 4473 and away you go. After you pay the FFL, that is.

Step 10 — Cover Your Ass

IMMEDIATELY make five copies of the completed Form 4. One copy will always stay with the silencer, preferably attached with a rubber band. The others you will stash strategically around your home in places where you will never lose them. The original goes in a safety deposit box somewhere.

Why the copies and safety deposit box? Because your ass is on the line. Possession of an NFA item without ATF registration and approval is a HUGE no-no, and the ATF’s registry (by their own admission in a court of law) is so poorly maintained and full of holes that it is basically unusable. It’s up to you to prove that you’re the legally registered owner of that silencer, which means you need the paperwork.

Everywhere you go with the silencer, you need at least one copy of the Form 4. Technically only ATF agents can request to see it, but local law enforcement and range officers love to bust people’s balls by requiring to see a copy of the paperwork anytime they see an NFA item. In those situations it is easier to comply and let them see the paperwork, so let them have a peek. The actual letter of the law doesn’t require you to have the paperwork on your person (merely readily available somewhere), but I think it’s a good idea to always have a copy.

You don’t need to inform the ATF when you travel with your silencer (machine guns and other NFA items need prior ATF approval to move across state lines), but you do need to let them know when you move your permanent address. The form is quick and painless, but you need to remember to do it.

 

That’s it — that’s all there is to buying a silencer.

[Email your firearms-related questions to “Ask Foghorn” via guntruth@me.com. Click here to browse previous posts]