By Brandon Maddox
As of July 1 firearm owners in the state of Minnesota are legally allowed to own and possess silencers (or suppressors). SF 878 was passed with strong bipartisan support in both chambers and signed into law by Democrat Governor Mark Dayton. On August 1, 2015, the use of silencers while hunting will be allowed in the North Star State. Silencers, for the uninitiated, are not the tools of spies and assassins that the media has portrayed them to be, but rather an innovative safety device that provide three key benefits to hunters and shooters . . .
- The use of silencers decreases complaints of the noise of gunfire which are often used as an excuse to close public lands to hunting
- Silencers decrease felt recoil and muzzle rise on a firearm which results in improved accuracy
- Most importantly, silencers reduce the harsh sound of gun fire to hearing-safe levels, to protect the hearing of the shooter or anyone near them.
This law came into being due to the efforts of the American Suppressor Association throughout the 2015 Legislative Session in Minnesota. Minnesota has now become the 40th state to allow the ownership and use of silencers in accordance with federal law, but the road to freedom faced many hurdles beginning with the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934.
The National Firearms Act of 1934
As a result of sensationalized bank robberies during the Great Depression committed by the likes of John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson, the federal government decided the solution was to regulate silencers, machine guns, sawed-off shotguns and certain other firearms that did not serve a “sporting purpose”. To own an NFA firearm the owner had to pass a background check, submit fingerprints and photographs, gain the approval of a chief local law enforcement officer and pay a $200 tax (a substantial sum in 1934).
Because these were not considered mainstream firearms and there was no internet at the time, the law passed and few individuals including the NRA seemed to mind. In fact the NRA’s spokesperson at the time spoke in favor of this de facto ban.
The fact that silencers were not widely used in any crimes during the 1930s was completely lost on lawmakers. They were considered relatively new and exotic and were thrown under the proverbial bus along with everything else.
Although they were not illegal to own, the taxes, paperwork and associated frustrations involved in purchasing them put suppressors out of reach for the common man. State level incrementalism soon followed as numerous states passed their own laws in alignment with the NFA.
Minnesota attorney David Feinwachs puts it this way: “After the NFA was passed, a few states enacted bans on NFA weapons immediately. Minnesota is a rather cautious state, we are almost never the first to enact or ban anything, and this is why we are the 40th state to legitimize silencers. The reverse was true of the NFA, it took nearly 50 years after its passage for them to become illegal at the state level for Minnesotans.”
A Ban 50 Years in the Making
What changed was a Democrat Attorney General in the person of Hubert Horatio “Skip” Humphrey III. Prior to 1983, silencers were legal in Minnesota as long as the owners complied with federal law. Some people collected them as unique forms of historical mechanical art and some people used them for shooting.
Humphrey lead the push to make them illegal and even prohibited Minnesota police departments from lawfully obtaining them. Federal agencies such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) follow the laws set by state attorneys general and took no action to override or address Humphrey’s decision.
After he left office in 1999, things began to loosen up in the North Star State. First it was for police and government agencies.
Positive changes in the 21st Century
“They decided to let the police have them and some wildlife sanctuaries, but they carefully controlled the numbers allowed and when they could be used.” said attorney Feinwachs, “Private Citizens attempted to gain this same right using the collector of mechanical art argument, but the law at the time limited such collections to museums.”
In 2012 another change to the law was made, this time granting ownership rights to Federal Firearms License holders who maintained a Special Occupation Taxpayer license (SOT). This was done to keep rifle manufacturers such as JP Enterprises from moving out of the state.
“It’s beneficial to everyone in the industry and our state when government listens and understands the needs of the business community and orchestrates a workable solution,” said JP General Manager Mel Koenig, who testified on the bill’s behalf before both the Public Safety Committees in both the Minnesota House and Senate.
Minnesota becomes the 40th state to legalize silencers
Still, a handful of dealers do not make for the rights of all citizens to enjoy and use silencers, but at least the tyrannical bonds were loosening. This gave the needed impetus for groups like the American Suppressor Association to seek to reform the law by addressing the three roles that silencers fulfill within the shooting community.
The ASA along with the NRA and Representative Tony Cornish (R) worked together in making this legislation a sound one that would appeal to both sides of the gun control debate. Governor Mark Dayton threatened to veto the bill from the start, but when the language of the bill allowed for greater oversight and he ultimately relented. A revised version of the bill ensured that CLEOs would have the discretion to deny suppressor applications for people they deemed unsuitable to own one.
Additionally, legislators such as Rep. Mark Anderson (R), pointed out that silencers are not used in crimes and have not been for decades. As a hunter and sportsman he cited his own experiences: “If there’s days I’m standing out there with my waders on and I just make one shot, and as soon as I make that one shot, my ears are ringing every single time.”
“No, there won’t be a rash of ninja-related shootings,” Anderson added.
Feinwachs echoed this statement, “The fact is that illegal silencers are relatively easy to make for a low amount of money. Since this is the case, where are all the police reports of criminals using homemade silencers? Quite simply, there aren’t any in a substantial number and none whatsoever of a legal sound suppressor used to commit a crime.”
With the ban ending on July 1 and the hunting ban ending on August 1, Minnesotans who want to enjoy their new found freedom to own and use silencers still have a few hurdles to jump.
So where are all the silencers?
The change in Minnesota state law does not, of course, eliminate the strict federal provisions. Background checks will need to be conducted and the $200 tax paid to the NFA branch of the BATFE. The biggest hurdle may actually be finding a dealer who has silencers in stock. Dealers must submit a federal form number three in order to transfer NFA items among themselves and they can take 90 days or more.
One method of speeding the process is by buying through class 3 dealers who specialize in suppressors such as Dakota Silencer which does business in a number of states adjacent to Minnesota, and has recently opened a Minnesota location.
In a political climate where everything firearms-related appears to be the target of at least one political party in the United States, it is refreshing to see some freedom restored as it has been in Minnesota. In this instance it is particularly noteworthy that it is about what boils down to a safety device. If certain political action groups who clamored for “firearm safety” actually were concerned with safe firearms use, silencers would not be regulated and would be included with every firearm purchase.
The good news: there are only ten states left to go to make silencers a universal freedom for all Americans.
Brandon Maddox is CEO of Dakota Silencer.