What are Suppressors and Why Do People Use Them?

Silencers ― sometimes called suppressors or moderators ― are devices, like car mufflers, that reduce the sound of guns going off. They swirl the path of the expanding gasses that come out of a gun barrel, so the gasses exit more slowly, which reduces the explosive sound. They’re actually fairly simple canisters that attach to gun muzzles. Inside the canister are baffles that slow the flow of the gases.

Noise Suppression

The first suppressor was patented in 1908 under the name “maxim silencer.” Hiram Percy Maxim, the inventor, used the same principle to design mufflers for cars and other machines to reduce the sound of gas emissions.

Noise reduction has always made shooting more pleasant and has protected the hearing of shooters. With the current suppressors, the sound is reduced by as much as 30 decibels. 

Opposition to Noise Suppression

Gun control advocates argue that reducing the loudness of gunfire will reduce the public response to shootings. If these “silencer” devices were widely available, people wouldn’t be able to hear a nearby mass shooting, they say. Hollywood has popularized the idea that a suppressor can make a shooting as secret as a whisper. Gangsters shoot their victims through a bed pillow to mute the sound. They screw a neat silver cylinder on the front of their pistol, and the shooting sounds like a cat’s hissing. Thanks to movies, people wrongly believe that and similarly ridiculous depictions of guns.

Hollywood stereotypes have a lot to do with the gun control lobby’s argument against the Hearing Protection Act.

The original position against noise suppressors on guns was based on a conservationist argument in a book by Bronx Zoo Director, William T. Hornaday. Modern guns were too accurate, Hornaday said. They could kill wildlife very efficiently with telescopic sights and other aids. If silencers on guns prevented animals from hearing the shots, they wouldn’t run away and protect themselves. 

The Original and Current Law

The original National Firearms Act of 1934 applied a strict registration and taxation system to machine guns, short-barreled shotguns and rifles, and mortars, as well as silencers. Silencers were simply ignored in the debate when the legislation was passed. Today, because of that original act, purchasing a suppressor requires a $200 tax, and the suppressor has to go through a months-long registration process with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The Gun Control Act of 1968 treats suppressors the same as firearms. The retail purchaser must fill out a four-page questionnaire that includes questions about the purchaser’s race and ethnic origin. A false answer is punishable by prison time.


H.R. 367, The Hearing Protection Act of 2017 now before the U.S. House of Representatives, would:

  • Eliminate the $200 tax on “firearm silencers.”
  • “Treat any person who acquires or possesses a firearm silencer as meeting any registration or licensing requirements of the National Firearms Act with respect to such silencer.”
  • Allow anyone to receive a refund for the transfer tax if he/she paid the tax after October 22, 2015.
  • Amend the “federal criminal code to preempt state or local laws that tax or regulate silencers.”

The bill has wide support in the public, but people doubt whether it will pass. The bill now sits in committee.

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