Do si­lencers re­ally make firearms quiet, or pro­tect users’ hear­ing?

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - The Fact Checker GLENN KESSLER glenn.kessler@wash­post.com

“You know what pro­tects your hear­ing bet­ter than a si­lencer? Ear plugs.”

— Amer­i­cans for a Re­spon­si­ble So­lu­tion, in a tweet, March 13

“When some­one gets shot by a gun with a si­lencer, it’s quiet. Wit­nesses might not hear. Po­lice will be less likely to track down the shooter.”

— Sen. Kirsten Gil­li­brand (D-N.Y.), in a tweet, March 14

Congress is pre­par­ing to de­bate the Hear­ing Pro­tec­tion Act, which would stream­line the pur­chase of sup­pres­sors for firearms.

To buy a sup­pres­sor, more pop­u­larly known as a si­lencer, one must meet a num­ber of re­quire­ments that re­sult in a nine-month ap­proval process (in­clud­ing sub­mit­ting fin­ger­prints and a pho­to­graph) and a $200 tax stamp. The leg­is­la­tion would make buy­ing a sup­pres­sor as easy as buy­ing a firearm (with an in­stant back­ground check), and do away with the tax stamp and fed­eral reg­is­tra­tion.

We ob­vi­ously take no po­si­tion on whether this pro­posed law would be good or bad, but we were cu­ri­ous about this pair of tweets. Amer­i­cans for a Re­spon­si­ble So­lu­tion (ARS), in its tweet, fur­ther noted that the law “would make it eas­ier for ac­tive shoot­ers to in­flict se­ri­ous harm on our com­mu­ni­ties with­out be­ing de­tected by trained law en­force­ment pro­fes­sion­als.”

What’s the im­pact of a sup­pres­sor on firearm noise? Does it ac­tu­ally make the firearm quiet or is that sim­ply some­thing you see in the movies?

The Facts

The En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency de­vel­oped the nois­ere­duc­tion rat­ing (NRR), which ex­plains how much a prod­uct re­duces noise in deci­bels. The deci­bel scale is log­a­rith­mic, rather than lin­ear, so a dif­fer­ence of a few deci­bels is im­por­tant.

Of course, dif­fer­ent ear pro­tec­tions have dif­fer­ent rat­ings. We found that the range for ear plugs was from 22 to 33 NRR, over-the-ear muffs be­tween 22 and 31 NRR, and sup­pres­sors were also in 30 NRR range, although some may go higher.

In all like­li­hood, the level of noise re­duc­tion is over­es­ti­mated, es­pe­cially for ear plugs, be­cause tests are done in a lab­o­ra­tory set­ting and peo­ple us­ing them of­ten do not achieve the proper fit. 3M ad­vises cut­ting the NRR by more than half to re­flect this prob­lem, so 29 NRR would trans­late to 11 NRR.

Katie Peters, a spokes­woman for ARS, supplied an ar­ti­cle that stated: “The av­er­age sup­pres­sion level, ac­cord­ing to in­de­pen­dent tests done on a va­ri­ety of com­mer­cially avail­able sup­pres­sors, is around 30 dB, which is around the same re­duc­tion level of typ­i­cal ear pro­tec­tion gear of­ten used when fir­ing guns.”

If that’s the case, we’re not sure why the group would say that ear plugs pro­tect hear­ing “bet­ter” than sup­pres­sors. It seems the an­swer is that they are about the same, give or take two or three deci­bels. So ARS is es­pe­cially wrong to claim that leg­is­la­tion to make it eas­ier to buy such de­vices “does noth­ing to pro­tect hear­ing.”

Peters ac­knowl­edged that gun en­thu­si­asts rec­om­mend that even with sup­pres­sors, other hear­ing pro­tec­tion is nec­es­sary. Hear­ing dam­age be­gins to oc­cur at about 85 deci­bels, about the sound of a hairdryer.

This gets us to the other is­sue — whether a sup­pres­sor makes it “quiet,” as Gil­li­brand tweeted, and harder for law en­force­ment of­fi­cials to de­tect, as she and ARS sug­gested.

A 30-deci­bel re­duc­tion, in the­ory, means an AR-15 ri­fle would have a noise equiv­a­lent of 132 deci­bels. That is con­sid­ered equiv­a­lent to a gun­shot or a jack­ham­mer. A .22-cal­iber pis­tol would be 116 deci­bels, which is louder than a 100-watt car stereo. In all like­li­hood, the noise level is ac­tu­ally higher.

So what are op­po­nents of the law talk­ing about?

“We aren’t nec­es­sar­ily talk­ing about be­ing out in the mid­dle of the woods deer hunt­ing where it is ex­tremely quiet. In­stead, gun crimes of­ten oc­cur in cities and in other very noisy places,” said Marc Brumer, a Gil­li­brand spokesman. “The shots would be heard by law en­force­ment or wit­nesses at the gun’s typ­i­cal deci­bel level, but they of­ten can­not be heard when a si­lencer is added. There are many sounds in cities that are far louder than a gun­shot masked by a si­lencer.”

A night­club, he noted, has a sound level of 155 deci­bels, while a sub­way is 102 deci­bels. (Although sound lev­els as high as 155 deci­bels have been de­tected in night clubs, that’s not an av­er­age and would be very dam­ag­ing to a per­son’s hear­ing.)

“Rel­a­tive to their nor­mal deci­bel level, par­tic­u­larly in those ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments where gun crime of­ten oc­curs, I out­lined in pre­vi­ous email, si­lencers make guns im­pos­si­ble to hear over many com­mon sounds and there­fore ‘quiet,’ ” Brumer said.

But gun ex­perts say that noises are not equal. “While th­ese items/in­stru­ments/ en­vi­ron­ments may be louder or as loud as firearms, none carry with them the eas­ily rec­og­niz­able sonic pulse of a gun­shot,” said Bob Owens, ed­i­tor of Bear­ing Arms, which ad­vo­cates for ex­panded gun rights.

Peters pointed to a 2013 ar­ti­cle in The Wash­ing­ton Post that said the Shot Spot­ter de­tec­tion sys­tem may have trou­ble de­tect­ing shots fired from a si­lencer. But Shot Spot­ter says that in­for­ma­tion is out of date.

“We have suc­cess­fully if not in­ad­ver­tently de­tected con­firmed sup­pressed gun­fire within our ex­ist­ing de­ploy­ments,” said Ralph Clark, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Shot Spot­ter. “We be­lieve we will have var­i­ous op­tions, rang­ing from in­creas­ing our sen­sor ar­ray den­sity to de­vel­op­ing soft­ware/firmware to ad­dress the de­tec­tion of sup­pressed gun­fire if it were to be­come a wide­spread is­sue.”

Brumer also pointed to a YouTube video in which a firearms en­thu­si­ast ex­claimed how “very quiet” a .22-cal­iber long-range ri­fle was with a si­lencer.

But the firearm in the video is not a high-pow­ered weapon. It uses sub­sonic am­mu­ni­tion that is even ad­ver­tised as re­quir­ing no hear­ing pro­tec­tion. (“Great for back­yard plink­ing and in­tro­duc­ing youth to the shoot­ing sports.”) That’s cer­tainly a very dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion than a stan­dard AR-15 round, which can be re­duced only to 132 deci­bels with a sup­pres­sor.

Sup­pres­sors, by de­fus­ing the noise of a weapon, may make it more dif­fi­cult to lo­cate the source of a sound, which is why they of­ten are used by mil­i­tary snipers.

The Vi­o­lence Pol­icy Cen­ter, which op­poses the pro­posed law, can point to only a hand­ful of ex­am­ples of si­lencers be­ing used in vi­o­lent crimes. “The data in­di­cates that use of si­lenced firearms in crime is a rare oc­cur­rence, and is a mi­nor prob­lem,” said a 2007 study cited by the Vi­o­lence Pol­icy Cen­ter.

Brumer said that Gil­li­brand was only fol­low­ing the lead of law en­force­ment of­fi­cials in op­pos­ing the bill. New York bans sup­pres­sors, but she has ex­pressed con­cern about sup­pres­sors be­ing il­le­gally traf­ficked into the state.

The Pinoc­chio Test

We can un­der­stand the ir­ri­ta­tion of gun-con­trol ad­vo­cates about leg­is­la­tion with a be­nign sound­ing name such as the Hear­ing Pro­tec­tion Act. Clearly the main ef­fect of the mea­sure would be to loosen re­stric­tions on the pur­chase of sup­pres­sors that have been in place for decades. It would be bet­ter called the Pa­per­work Re­duc­tion Act, es­pe­cially be­cause the use of sup­pres­sors does not mit­i­gate the need for hear­ing pro­tec­tion.

But that ti­tle does not give op­po­nents the lib­erty to stretch the facts.

It’s de­bat­able that ear plugs pro­tect ears bet­ter than a sup­pres­sor — and mean­while, no self-re­spect­ing gun owner would use an AR-15 ri­fle with­out ear pro­tec­tion, even if he or she had a sup­pres­sor. Cer­tainly the two in com­bi­na­tion would pro­vide bet­ter ear pro­tec­tion than one type alone, es­pe­cially be­cause the NRR of earplugs in reg­u­lar use is prob­a­bly over­stated. So ARS’s tweet is rather mis­lead­ing.

In the mean­time, although the pop­u­lar name of this ac­ces­sory is a si­lencer, foes of the law such as Gil­li­brand should not use mis­lead­ing terms such as “quiet” to de­scribe the sound made by a high-pow­ered weapon with a sup­pres­sor at­tached. We wa­vered be­tween Two and Three Pinoc­chios, but fi­nally tipped to Three. There is lit­tle that’s quiet about a firearm with a si­lencer, un­less one also thinks a jack­ham­mer is quiet.

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