Suppressors, which are also called silencers both in the relevant laws as well as common discussions on them, are devices that attach to the muzzle of a firearm and allow it to fire much more quietly. In the most extreme cases, for instance, a suppressed 9mm firing subsonic ammunition, this can be quiet enough that the shooter will no longer need to wear hearing protection to fire the gun safely.
While there are several kinds of suppressors, most work by screwing onto the end of the muzzle of a firearm and are chambers that have baffles inside of them: this gives the expanding gasses a lot more time to cool down and slow their rate of travel, both of which reduce the amount of noise and muzzle flash.
Mechanically, suppressors are relatively simple and easy to make by about anyone with a home machine shop.
Legally, on the other hand, suppressors can be a little bit hard to come by, as they are regulated by the 1934 National Firearms Act, or NFA. To get a suppressor, you have to first purchase it, and then ask for permission from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) to take it home, and then pay $200 for a tax stamp making you the legal owner.
With that in mind, why are they getting more popular?
The NFA paperwork to own a suppressor is called a form 4. For years, this was a lengthy and time-consuming process, requiring you to submit the paperwork and documents required via mail. As of about 2016, it was not uncommon for people to wait well over a year to receive word back that they could pick up their suppressor.
Now, things have begun to change, albeit slowly. As of 2022, it’s possible to submit form 4 online, along with all of the required documents. With a little bit of luck, some people have had their taxes collected and the permission slip issued to take their suppressor home in less than a month.
I did mention luck here, and it’s also the reason for some major slowdowns. Even though you can submit form 4 online, it still has to be reviewed by a human being at the ATF, who will accept or reject your application.
If, for instance, there’s a global pandemic and much of the federal government is working from home, or not at all, this process will slow down considerably. Currently, some folks are posting on applications that they made over a year ago.
Even with that in mind, there are now also an increasing number of firearms attorneys who have helped make suppressors popular through two avenues. First, many of them offer free or cheap online services that will help you either file a form 4 yourself or to make a gun trust to own one on your behalf.
This legal aid has made the process a lot less intimidating, and a lot more possible, for more people. Second, these same attorneys have also taken the time to put guides on either their own websites or social media platforms that will walk you through the process.
As the ATF finally joins the 21st century with the ability to accept paperwork and fingerprints online, as well as the efforts of folks to put more, and better, information online, it’s likely that more people are willing to go through the government processes it takes to own a suppressor, even if the wait times are still long and the $200 tax stamp is still a burden on our firearms budgets.
The Effects of (Social) Media
As compared to previous generations, we’re absolutely bombarded with firearms-related content. From films that focus on special operations and secret agents to gun-focused websites, blogs, stores, and video channels, it’s certainly easy to see lots of content that feature suppressors.
Besides being cool to watch, this content also often links to sites where you can start the process to buy a suppressor. Now, it’s simpler than it ever has been to at least begin form 4, pay for a suppressor, and eventually, own the suppressor for yourself.
A few decades ago, on the other hand, suppressors were specialty items you’d have to buy from a local gun store. This made them highly unusual, often extremely expensive, and downright hard to research let alone find and buy.
It’s possible that, going back just to the 1990s, that you could own firearms for years and have barely any notion that suppressors even existed.
As is the case for most topics you might care about, the beginning of the digital age has made the world the feel a lot smaller and being able to find accurate information about suppressors including right where to buy them and file the paperwork, has made buying suppressors a lot more popular for many kinds of shooter.
Legal Efforts Moving Forward
Although there has not been much movement on it since it was introduced to the Senate Finance Committee in 2021, there is a bill working its way through congress that would make buying a suppressor a lot easier, and thus more popular.
The bill, referred to as the Hearing Protection Act, would amend the NFA to exclude language referring to suppressors and silencers as firearms. This would, in effect, make it possible to have a suppressor shipped to your house in the same way that you currently can with other firearms accessories like a foregrip, or, more closely, a muzzle brake.
I’d be willing to bet that if the Hearing Protection Act passes, it would make suppressor ownership a lot more popular: as a lot more people would be willing to buy a suppressor and it no longer had the mystique of being so heavily regulated, companies would also likely make models that are substantially cheaper than current production suppressors.
All in all, while it’s not the most likely thing in the world, the passage of the Hearing Protection Act would likely increase the already growing popularity of suppressors among American shooters.