Four years of failing to pass hearing protection legislation for gun owners
By JIM MATTHEWS
Forty-plus years of hunting and shooting have taken its toll on my hearing. I am like millions of other hunters, recreational shooters, and former military who have significant hearing loss because of being around firearms. But we didn’t have to suffer this hearing loss. It is the result of an ignorant section of legislation passed in 1934 -- the National Firearms Act.
Passed to effectively ban the ownership and use of fully-automatic firearms and sawed-off shotguns, the legislation also banned the use of noise suppressors on firearms, which were erroneously called “silencers” and have been ever since.
Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of firearms knows that most firearms can’t be completely silenced. The only thing possible with most modern sporting firearms is a reduction of the noise level that would help protect hearing from the sharp bark of a round being discharged. Most firearms simply can be “silenced” like we always see in the spy movies on pistols used by bad-guy assassins. The reason is simple: There is a loud, sharp crack when the bullet or shot charge breaks the sound barrier. For a firearm to be completely silenced, the bullet/shot charge must exit the end of the barrel/suppressor assembly at less than 1,125 feet per second, the speed at which the sound barrier is broken.
With subsonic ammunition, a well-designed suppressor can indeed make a gun nearly silent, completely capturing the noise of the explosion of the powder charge. Revolvers simply can’t be silenced, even with a suppressor on the end of the barrel, because the noise escapes at the front of the cylinder. With semi-automatic firearms, you will still hear the sound of the action cycling, and most won’t cycle subsonic ammunition without serious modification or adjustment.
For virtually all centerfire rifle and shotgun ammunition and most handgun ammunition on the market, there will still be a loud crack as the bullet or shot charge leaves the end of the suppressor because the bullet/shot charge is supersonic. However, the loud explosive noise made by the ignition of the powder charge can be drastically reduced and muffled by a suppressor, adding a huge layer of hearing protection for the person pulling the trigger or people nearby.
I have been pretty diligent about using ear plugs and muffs when shooting at ranges or even just when plinking, but most hunters don’t wear hearing protection because they want to be able to hear even the slightest sounds in the field, and muffs or plugs almost eliminate the ability to hear quail or ducks calling or the sounds of rustling leaves that might indicate approaching or fleeing game.
I have spoken with a number of doctors specializing in hearing loss over the years, and all have said most of the hearing loss they deal with has two primary origins, firearms or loud work environments. Today, the second one has been nearly eliminated. Federal regulations now mandate hearing protection in workplace environments, but we have catastrophic negligence when it comes to hearing protection guidelines for the sporting community. Virtually all gun ranges now mandate hearing protection, but the simple and sane fix would be to recommend or provide suppressors with every firearm sold in the nation.
But the suppressors (aka “silencers”) are illegal or allowed only in some states if you are willing to jump through the hoops. According to the American Suppressor Association (ASA), in order to purchase a suppressor, a prospective buyer must meet the following criteria: First, they must live in a state where suppressors are legal (obviously, not California). Second, they send in an application including fingerprints and passport photos to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), and pay a $200 transfer tax. They also must notify their local chief law enforcement officer. Then they wait an indeterminate amount of time for BATF to process the application. As of January 2019, wait times typically range from five to 14 months.
The idea that we needed to ban suppressors comes from the same ignorant idea that we need to ban a lot of things -- from large cups of sugary drinks to semi-automatic firearms. The nanny state knows what is intrinsically just bad and shouldn’t be allowed. Yet, there is virtually no law enforcement or criminal deterrent value to banning suppressors. There never has been. It has always been about banning something that is wrongly envisioned as evil and sinister.
So since 2015, legislation has been introduced into Congress each year that would have changed just a few words in the National Firearms Act that would have allow suppressors to be used without restriction to give shooters and hunters a very simple, affordable, and effective means to protect their hearing. Many other countries around the world have recognized and addressed the “hearing loss crisis” by removing suppressor restrictions, but we can’t seem to adopt this common-sense legislation in this country.
The Hearing Protection Act was again introduced into Congress this year, and it is again likely to be dead in the swamp that has refused to be drained. Why won’t this bill move forward? Because this legislation is about guns, and guns are a hot-button issue, especially with the new majority in the House of Representatives. Many Democrats believe average citizens like you and I shouldn’t be allowed to own firearms. And they certainly don’t care about our hearing.
Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.