A story about silent assassins, savvy corporate lobbyists, hidden microphone networks, and Barack Obama’s secret plan to seize America’s guns could begin almost anywhere. Let’s start in a bathtub. It was there — watching the water swirl down the drain — that Hiram Percy Maxim decided to thumb his nose at the laws of physics and silence a gunshot.
Maxim, an MIT trained engineer, lived in an age of the noisy new: The car was new, as was the machine gun — invented by his father, Hiram Stevens Maxim. More power, more noise was the price of modernity.
To problems flock solutions, and all manner of devices were designed to muffle, baffle, and mute the decibilic blight. Quieting a bullet’s blast, however, proved more tricky.
There are two sounds that make up a gunshot. The bang produced when the high pressure gases that propel the bullet down the barrel escape out the end. And the crack — actually a shock wave — that follows a projectile traveling faster than the speed of sound. Maxim couldn’t best the speed of sound, but his glimpse down the drain gave him the idea for how to address the gas. “Here was water in a bathtub, the drain plug pulled out, and yet the water was able to run out but slowly because it was whirling,” he later recalled.
Here’s the logical leap that made Maxim worthy of the title of inventor: slow down the gasses as they escape from the end of the barrel by forcing them to whirl rather than leap straight out. On June 26, 1908, Maxim filed a patent for a device that threaded onto a gun barrel and directed the gases into a series of whirled chambers as the bullet traveled down its length. Patents, after all, both protect intellectual investment and advertise its results, which is why Maxim affixed such a bold yet misleading moniker to his invention. He called it a silencer.
Maxim’s name has faded to history, but his invention is still instantly recognizable: the metal tube famous for making gunshots go “pffft.” Today, the weapons manufacturing industry, eager to meet the demands of a country already saturated with firearms, is on a quiet campaign to silence a whole lot more gunshots. The industry is quickly rolling back restrictions on the devices at the state level and making the rounds to remove federal taxes and background checks as well. Critics fear silencers could make anticrime shot-spotting systems less effective, and a few states, including Massachusetts, are holding out, even as a plucky silencer maker near Springfield is earnestly trying to change hearts and minds. Moreover, this new silencer showdown shows just how far apart both camps in the gun debate really are, and how unwilling they are to grapple with the realities of weaponry and instead bask in its mythologies.
The history of guns is marked by gratuitous abuses of the English language. Silencers were bedeviled by problematic language from the beginning, namely that they don’t silence anything. How much they reduce the sound of a gun depends on many factors, including the caliber of the weapon. A typical silencer cuts the noise of supersonic shots from, say, 165 dB to 130 dB. Sound is measured on a logarithmic scale, so it’s a technical feat. But 130 dB is louder than a chain saw or a thunderclap. Safe shooters in that scenario would still need to wear ear protection even with a silencer.
Made in Hartford and first sold for a mere $3.25, the device “checks the muzzle blast, preventing report noise and recoil. . . . Reduces the tendency to flinch when shooting,” declared an early advertisement. Military drill sergeants were urged to request them to train green recruits. Wives to buy them for their husbands’ backyard target practice. President Teddy Roosevelt had his 1894 Winchester rifle fitted with a Maxim silencer for varmint hunting on his Long Island estate.
Maxim began calling himself “Dr. Shush.” And his name for his device — the silencer — is what it is called in the US legal code first outlined in the 1934 National Firearms Act and has been the term most widely used.
“They’re becoming less and less stigmatized, and describing them accurately is part of that,” says Michael Williams, the general counsel for the American Suppressor Association. They’re a trade group for silencer manufacturers, which has embarked on a stunningly successful nationwide effort to sell more silencers.
One tactic is to get more people to call the devices suppressors rather than silencers. That’s pretty reasonable from a public relations point of view, but maddeningly pedantic when raised in casual conversation. It is just about as Orwellian as the government’s insistence that a silencer is a firearm, which, by any honest reading of the English language, it is not.
The congressional hearings over the National Firearms Act, or the NFA as it is commonly known, are remarkable today and not just for the familiarity of the arguments. The NFA came in response to the violence of Prohibition Era gang wars. The nation’s homicide rate in 1933 had climbed to the highest then on record — and about double what it is in 2016.
What’s so striking about the debate over the law is the candor and reasonableness. Karl Frederick, then the president of the National Rifle Association, testified in the spring of that year and had this exchange with Congressman John W. McCormack of Massachusetts.
McCormack: You are not opposed to regulation?
Frederick: Not at all; I have advocated it.
McCormack: You are not opposed to a Federal bill?
Frederick: Provided the bill will accomplish useful results in the suppression of crime, I am heartily in favor of it.
Final federal legislation took aim at machine guns, short-barreled shotguns, and — for reasons that are not entirely clear — silencers. The purchase and trade in these items were both taxed and heavily regulated by the feds, a measure the NRA supported. The tax on silencers was set at $200, a levy that would be about $3,600 today, had the tax kept pace with inflation. Since it hasn’t, the tax for a silencer today remains fixed at $200, which helps cover the cost of an expansive federal background check. A local chief law enforcement official must also sign off on the federal forms.
Semantics aside, nothing has done more to misrepresent Maxim’s machine than popular culture. From James Bond to weekly police procedurals, the silencer has become a ubiquitous trope onscreen and in countless video games. And while the military has a long history with such devices, they were often used to quietly dispatch not enemies but animals. “They’ve been misrepresented as assassins’ tools,” says Brent Miller, northeastern states director of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, another group pushing to roll back silencer restrictions.
As Maxim learned, there’s a lot of money to be made in misrepresentation. When the Army ordered 85,000 M-16 rifles in 1963, it wasn’t initially concerned about a lack of kits to clean them. Designers had branded the weapon as self-cleaning, which seemed pretty self-explanatory.
But to US soldiers issued the weapons in the jungles of Vietnam, that semantic difference proved catastrophic: The new guns quickly jammed during regular use, and soldiers were often found lying dead next to their own disassembled weapons, having frantically tried to unjam them in battle. The Pentagon was desperate.
James H. Graham, a machinist in Northampton, won his first government contract and began cranking out M-16 cleaning kits in the mid 1960s. The company he founded, Yankee Hill Machine, still makes 120,000 cleaning kits per year for Uncle Sam, and it has expanded into other areas, too, cashing in on a national weapons spending spree that’s proved just as lucrative as a foreign war.
On July 20, 2012, a mass murderer killed 12 and wounded 58 others at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., using a Smith & Wesson M&P15. On Dec. 12, 2012, another mass murderer killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., using his mother’s Bushmaster XM15-E2S. The letter and number suffixes belie a simple truth — the guts of both guns look just like an M-16 or, as it is known for civilian use, an AR-15. OK, the M-16 can fire in fully automatic mode but otherwise, the same.
In Orlando just this month, it was a similar type of semiautomatic assault weapon, a Sig Sauer MCX, that helped claim 49 lives. Gun makers’ stocks soared.
In the wake of the 2012 massacres, President Obama and many other politicians turned their attention to gun control. Or at least to talking more about gun control. They didn’t target handguns, which are responsible for 80 percent of all gun-related homicides in the United States (suicides account for 60 percent of all gun-related deaths), but instead focused on the iconic civilian version of the M-16. “President Obama plans to take the guns you own and make it harder for you to buy them,” was a recurring rallying cry for exercised gun owners, worried that the president had both the will and the ability to outlaw and seize military-style weaponry. He had neither. The administration couldn’t even get a figleaf measure purported to outlaw AR-15 ammunition through Congress.
Instead, there was a gun spending spree. AR-15s — and other types of semiautomic rifles — flew off the shelves faster than manufacturers could stock them. Good numbers are hard to come by, but there were millions of AR-15s in circulation in the United States before the Great Gun Panic of 2012 sent sales through a cathedral ceiling.
But the gun market was not immune to the animal spirits, and talk of gun control led to a predictable bubble. The cost of an AR-15 jumped to $2,500. But when the government didn’t start seizing weapons, the price fell dramatically. Today, you can pick up an AR-15 for less than $500.
So, what to do with a tough-guy gun that looks like it belongs in the hands of commando but is ill-suited to hunting anything larger than a wild pig? Accessorize it! “We weathered the Great Gun Crash, and now lots of people who bought the guns are looking to upgrade them — it isn’t just the ‘Call of Duty’ generation either, these are bankers, hunters, target shooters,” Chris Graham told me during a tour of Yankee Hill last month. Graham and his brother Kevin now own and operate their grandfather’s business.
Yankee Hill sells aftermarket AR-15 parts by the pallet-load, because the upgrade business is good — advanced gun barrels, handguards, sights, sling mounts, cleaning kits, butt stocks. Their 70 employees work in two eight-hour shifts per day, and 99 percent of that time is spent on the company’s own accessory products rather than on government contracts.
A decade ago, the Grahams realized that there was potential in silencers. “In 2005, they [suppressors] were a luxury item and cost $1,200. We realized that our machines could make them for about $400,” Graham says. But there was a perception that silencers were posh, and that, combined with the onerous regulatory hurdles that potential buyers had to clear, made mass production a risky endeavor.
A few years later, gun owners seeking silencers discovered a legal loophole. If a group of people formed a trust and purchased silencers — or other NFA-regulated weapons — through the organization, not all trustees had to go through the federal background check. Silencers could be legally shared by members. Soon, more than 100,000 gun trusts around the country sprang up and registered silencers. (Next month, due to a presidential executive order, gun trusts will face stricter regulation.)
By 2011, more than a dozen of the country’s suppressor-markers had decided to make their case to state and federal lawmakers that the regulations were antiquated. The American Suppressor Association was formed and took aim at the provision of the 1934 NFA. Today, the ASA reminds anyone who’ll listen it is far easier to buy an AR-15 than it is to buy a silencer, which is really nothing more than a fancy, nonlethal, and nonsilencing metal tube.
It is currently legal for individuals to own a silencer in 42 states, and the ASA is fighting to legalize them in the remaining eight, including Massachusetts. The ASA is also working to pass federal legislation that removes the current background check requirement. The goal is to sell silencers over the counter, just like telescopic sights, night vision scopes, and large-capacity magazines.
The ASA can boast impressive results: Since its formation a few years ago, 17 states have legalized silencers for hunting, three more have green-lit general private ownership. Sales have boomed. In 2010, there were 285,087 registered silencers in the country. Last year, that number had jumped to nearly 800,000, according to the ATF. In 2015 alone, silencer sales nationwide jumped almost 40 percent. The only remaining holdout states for individual ownership are California, New York, New Jersey, Hawaii, Illinois, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Massachusetts.
But the ASA and Yankee Hill, one of the country’s top small-shop silencer makers, are working to change that here. “Our minds automatically think of James Bond and silencers used by assassins to perpetuate evil deeds. That is not what this is about,” state Senator Don Humason told his Beacon Hill colleagues in February, pushing a bill that would allow the sale of suppressors. “It would be a very good amendment for business owners here in Massachusetts where there is a company [Yankee Hill is in his district] that manufactures these suppressors [née, silencers]. This would be helpful to quiet the sound of those hunting or shooting activities so as to not bother those who do not enjoy hunting like we do.”
Hearing protection is the name of the silencer game these days. The “sound suppression” [silencer] section of Yankee Hill’s website is illustrated with a pair of earmuffs. Proponents frequently invoke children hunting with their older relatives, as if only those who wish the worst for our nation’s young eardrums could oppose the Hearing Protection Act of 2015 now making its way through Congress. This isn’t a fringe issue: The HPA is one of the top 10 most-viewed bills in Washington.
Indeed, if this were any other issue, is there any doubt that many Americans would demand that a product be equipped with common-sense hearing protection and noise abatement technology?
The Cambridge Emergency Communications command center is as high tech as you might imagine. There are flatscreen televisions, banks of computer monitors that connect dispatchers with fire, police, and ambulances. One of the half-dozen controller terminals has a treadmill so that a dispatcher can keep fit and manage a steam of deadly crises as endless as the jog.
Once in a while, dispatchers receive an alert from a system called ShotSpotter, an advanced acoustic forensic network of microphones placed around 2.6 square miles of the city, ever attuned to the sound of gunfire. At 2:13 a.m. on May 15, for instance, dispatchers were notified that multiple shots had been fired near 47 Bishop Allen Drive. Seconds later, digital audio files were sent around to officers in the Cambridge Police Department. An arrest was made. The system — now in place in 46 cities nationwide — is so good that it can often tell police the caliber of the weapons involved and what direction moving shooters are traveling. The system claims to have reduced urban gunfire by nearly 13 percent.
ShotSpotter doesn’t claim to work for gunfire indoors, yet it does come up often when discussing the legalization of silencers. Do silencers make it harder for a multimillion dollar law enforcement system to do its job? The Boston Police Department says they would. Cambridge police think so too. Can the system be adapted to recognize and distinguish the sound of silencers without sacrificing its effectiveness? That’s not clear.
The problem with answering these questions more definitively is that silencers are almost never used in crimes. A study conducted in 2007 found that silencers are very rarely used in even gang-related crimes. And when criminals do possess silencers, they rarely use them — probably because they know the realities of criminal acts better than the average writer for “Law and Order.” Hiding a gun in one’s pants is difficult and dangerous enough. Try doubling the barrel length with a silencer, and even the smoothest of criminals looks foolish on a quick-draw.
In fact, researchers speculate that the psychological impact of a silencer is even more potent than its actual use. And that makes sense: If most people don’t know that a silencer is only a suppressor, then someone brandishing it during a robbery is going to look a lot more scary.
More problematic for the opposition to legalizing silencers, researchers concluded: “Since one can effectively muffle a firearm by doing nothing more than wrapping it in a towel, it is unlikely that laws banning professionally manufactured (or home-made) silencers are likely to have any real effect on crime.”
None of this should be very surprising: If there aren’t many silencers on the open market, it would make sense that they’ve not percolated onto the guns of many criminals. Crimes are based on motive and opportunity, after all. But what happens when silencers flood the country, and some inevitably fall into the wrong hands? We’re going to find out.
And we’re going to have to take steps to protect ourselves, too.
Correction: Brent Miller’s title was incorrectly listed in a previous version of this article. In addition, the number of states where silencers are legal for civilian ownership was misstated as 41 — they are now legal for civilian ownership in 42 states.
Alex Kingsbury can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.