Quiet guns are a threat to the public. A quiet Supreme Court, on the other hand, should come as a source of relief.
In an encouraging decision Monday, justices declined to hear a challenge to a federal gun law that restricts access to so-called silencers, the sound-dampening devices attached to guns that make gunshots harder to recognize. The court didn’t explain its reasoning, but the bottom line is that the 1934 law will remain in force. And by doing nothing, the justices provided at least a glimmer of hope that common sense on guns might prevail at the Supreme Court in the future.
The court turned aside an appeal involving two men convicted of violating federal firearms laws: the owner of a Chanute, Kan., army surplus store who sold unregistered handmade silencers, and a customer who bought one. The men had challenged the 1934 National Firearms Act, which regulates civilian ownership of machine guns, short-barreled rifles, silencers, mortars, and bazookas, claiming that the silencer restrictions violated their Second Amendment rights.
Silencers don’t actually silence weapons, like in the movies. But they do change the way gunfire sounds — with potentially deadly consequences. Gun control groups say they could reduce the effectiveness of ShotSpotter acoustical shot-recognition programs, like Boston’s, that can quickly alert police to shootings and help track down shooters. They can also confuse the human ear, making it harder to know when — and in which direction — to run in the event of a shooting, increasing the carnage from the all-too-common mass shootings in America. A silencer was used in the recent Virginia Beach mass murder of 11 people at a municipal building; bystanders there reportedly thought the sounds were a nail gun at first, leading to a delayed reaction that may have cost lives. “If it was a regular gunshot, we would’ve definitely known a lot sooner,” recounted one survivor. Meanwhile, the devices offer no advantages for hunting or self-defense.
The federal law that the Kansas defendants challenged requires would-be owners of silencers to pass a background check, pay a $200 fee, provide fingerprints and a photo, and alert local authorities. Several states, including Massachusetts, go beyond the federal rules by banning silencers completely. Silencers haven’t surfaced in Boston crimes in recent years, and Mayor Marty Walsh says he wants to keep it that way by maintaining restrictions on the attachments.
Not too long ago, a case like the Kansas appeal would have been laughed out of court: Machine guns and bazookas are weapons of war, and silencers are not even firearms, making their claim to Second Amendment protection dubious at best. But a 2008 Supreme Court decision cast doubt on a whole range of gun control laws when it struck down a handgun ban in the District of Columbia and asserted that Americans have a constitutional right to possess firearms outside of military service.
The author of the decision, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, argued that it wouldn’t invalidate all gun control laws. The 2008 ruling, he took pains to note, didn’t prohibit “laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” In his telling, the decision just blocked prohibitions on whole classes of weapons used for a lawful purpose, such as handguns for self-defense.
Still, Scalia’s decision left enough room for interpretation to make gun control advocates nervous. Where the court chooses to draw the line on classes of weapons used for a lawful purpose remains very much in doubt. Assault rifles? What about concealed weapons? For that matter, isn’t the fun of shooting a weapon with a suppressor a lawful purpose?
The Supreme Court may yet disappoint us. But the decision not to hear the Kansas case and let the convictions stand shows that the justices haven’t quite downed the gun lobby’s Kool-Aid yet. The federal government, and states like Massachusetts, need the ability to keep weapons of war, and devices with no legitimate purpose, off our streets.