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Why Sen. Mike Lee wants to make gun silencers easier to buy

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A handgun with a silencer and two magazines are shown at a gun range in Atlanta on Jan. 27, 2017. While congressional Democrats look for ways to tighten federal gun laws in the wake of several mass shootings across the country, a group of Republicans, led by Utah Sen. Mike Lee, want to undo regulations on silencers.

Lisa Marie Pane, Associated Press

While President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats look for ways to tighten federal gun laws in the wake of several mass shootings across the country, a group of Republicans, led by Utah Sen. Mike Lee, wants to undo regulations on an accessory known as a silencer.

Lee said the steps needed to buy a silencer or suppressor amount to gun control.

“The current, oppressive process required to buy silencers only hurts the eardrums of millions of hunters, sportsmen and marksmen each year, and serves to provide surreptitious gun control,” he said in a statement.

Lee said his bill, the Silencers Helping Us Save Hearing Act, would eliminate the “onerous” regulation to make a legal sport safer for millions of Americans. Sens. Ted Cruz, of Texas, and John Cornyn, of Texas, are co-sponsoring the legislation, and Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., introduced a companion bill in the House.

Lee proposed the same legislation in 2017 and 2019.

Proponents of the bill and similar measures claim deregulating silencers is a health issue.

“Streamlining the burdensome process for obtaining a suppressor is important to protect the hearing of hunters and sportsmen across America,” Cruz said.

A silencer is a firearm accessory used by hunters and marksmen to make shooting safer by reducing — though not completely silencing — noise, recoil and muzzle blast, according to the senators.

But silencers have also been used in serious and deadly crimes over the years, including a mass shooting in 2019.

A gunman in Virginia Beach, Virginia, who killed 12 people going room to room in the city’s municipal building used a silencer that one survivor said made the semiautomatic pistol sound like “a nail gun.”

The survivor said at the time that if it had been a regular gunshot, people inside the building would have had 30 to 60 seconds more to secure themselves from the shooter. The gunman, a disgruntled employee, used two .45 caliber semiautomatic pistols and a silencer, all of which were bought legally.

Violence Policy Center legislative director Kristen Rand said silencers should be banned, not deregulated as Lee’s “ridiculously” named bill proposes.

“Silencers are military-bred accessories that make it easier for criminals to take innocent lives. Manufacturers brag that silencers can make guns ‘whisper quiet’ while increasing shooters’ accuracy and ability to fire rounds more quickly. These characteristics only make silencers more attractive to mass shooters, domestic terrorists and common criminals,” she said in a statement to the Deseret News.

Silencers are legal in 42 states, including Utah. California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island have banned civilians from owning the device.

People who want to buy a silencer must provide their fingerprints and photographs to petition the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and Explosives, receive law enforcement certification, pay a $200 tax and fill out an application. Most have to wait months for their paperwork to be processed.

The bill would eliminate the federal regulation of silencers under the National Firearms Act and the Gun Control Act, removing taxes, fees and registration requirements. It would also remove restrictions on the right to own, transport, transfer and use a silencer.

Silencers are considered weapons under the national firearms law. They are subject to certain regulations, including a ban on interstate transfers between unlicensed people, a ban on interstate sales entirely, and a federal registry.

Gun Owners of America, the National Rifle Association and the National Association for Gun Rights support the legislation.

In January, Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., introduced the Hearing Protection Act, which would remove silencers from the federal definition of firearm, allow for interstate transfers and sales and purge the existing registry.

A version of the bill he introduced in 2019 with 78 Republican co-sponsors never received a vote in the Democratic-controlled House. A similar bill in the Republican-controlled Senate that year didn’t get out of committee.

The House delayed a vote on a silencer bill in 2017 after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history in Las Vegas.