In the aftermath of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, the gun lobby’s fight for bills that would limit restrictions on firearm suppressors — commonly referred to as silencers — has fallen under harsh scrutiny by gun control advocates.
The shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival on Sunday night was the deadliest mass shooting in recent U.S. history — killing at least 58 and injuring well over 489 as suspect Stephen Paddock picked off victim after victim from his perch on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort. Police say he was found with a trove of weapons, including a pair of so-called bump stocks to allow his semiautomatic firearms to fire continuously.
The shooting, only the latest mass shooting to strike nerves across the U.S., also reignited the nation’s ongoing debates over gun control and what can be done to prevent future tragedies.
After the massacre, gun control advocates called attention to a National Rifle Association-backed bill under consideration in Congress that would make it easier to buy a silencer without a background check: the Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreation Act (or SHARE Act), which includes the “Hearing Protection Act.”
Josh Horwitz, the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a pro-gun-control nonprofit, said the sound of gun shots are a warning to people to take flight, find cover and protect themselves. Making silencers more readily available, he said, would cost lives.
“The idea that we want to make it easier for shooters to hide themselves, make themselves harder to detect is just absolutely ludicrous, especially when if hunters are concerned about hearing, they can wear ear protection,” Horwitz told Yahoo News on Tuesday. “We need to move toward a society that is safer and that means fewer, not more, silencers.”
Earlier in the day, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced at a news conference that the SHARE Act would be shelved indefinitely. He urged Americans to pray for Las Vegas (a familiar appeal that routinely falls flat for citizens who want concrete actions to stop gun violence) and said the bill is not currently scheduled for a vote.
“I don’t know when it will be scheduled,” Ryan said.
After the Las Vegas shooting, many politicians from both major parties expressed sympathy for the victims, but Democrats argued that the sniper attack only underscores the importance of prioritizing gun-control measures while Republicans argued that it was inappropriate to politicize a national tragedy. Similar back-and-forths have occurred after previous mass shootings.
The national debate often focuses on expanded background checks, but the issue of silencers — supporters prefer the term “suppressor” as it does not completely silence the firearm — quickly rose after the Las Vegas shooting.
Former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was among those who pointed out that the crowd at the music festival started to flee the scene after hearing gunshots. She suggested that the death toll would have been even higher had he used a silencer.
NRA spokesperson and conservative pundit Dana Loesch dismissed Clinton’s point, arguing that suppressors only reduce the sound of firearms by a few decibels.
Right now, private suppressor ownership is legal in 42 states and hunting with a suppressor is legal in 40. Under the National Firearms Act (NFA), prospective owners must apply through the ATF, pay a “tax stamp” of $200 and complete paperwork to demonstrate they have no felony convictions.
The Hearing Protection Act’s stated intention is to “cut through the red tape” for owning suppressors by taking it from under the scope of the NFA an establishing an “instantaneous” National Instant Criminal Background Check. The bill would also refund the $200 tax for applicants who bought a suppressor after October 22, 2015.
Gun control advocates argue that the GOP silencer legislation is driven by the gun industry’s desire to sell more accessories. But supporters of the bill say they’re being driven by practical concerns.
The bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Jeff Duncan, R- S.C., said the legislation was “about safety — plain and simple” when he introduced it last month. He said easier access to suppressors would help protect the hearing of hunters and shooting sports enthusiasts.
“I’ve been shooting since I was a young child — beginning with plinking with a .22 rifle and dove hunting with my Dad,” Duncan said in a statement. “My hearing has been damaged because of gun noise. Had I had access to a suppressor, it may have protected me, as well as millions of other Americans, from this sort of hearing loss.”
Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, who co-sponsored the bill, said silencers simply protect the hearing of shooters and that of their hunting dogs, and that they do not “make guns silent or dangerous.”
“The Duncan-Carter Hearing Protection Act is common sense legislation that increases safety while shooting, allowing people to easily hear and react to range safety officers and fellow hunters,” Carter said.
Pro-gun groups often blame the misconception that silencers reduce a gun’s sound to an undetectable blip on Hollywood films. Even though some right-wing websites like Breitbart have started calling silencer “leftist-speak for suppressor” that is “intended to give the impression that suppressors completely mute a gun,” the NRA has said, “the terms are synonyms.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is assisting the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department in investigating the shooting.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has not yet publicly identified the 23 firearms that the suspect reportedly had — though several photographs of his firearms have been leaked to the press. Regardless, silencers are available for assault rifles like the Bushmaster XM15-E2S, which was used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012.
The FBI is asking anyone who has video or photos of the Las Vegas shooting to call 1-800-CALL-FBI (225-5324).
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