Originally published here at Mises.org
In the aftermath of the Virginia Beach shooting, the usual gun control debate has come back into the national conversation.
The shooting, which witnessed a disgruntled public employee, DeWayne Craddock, kill 12 people at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center was odd in certain respects. Apart from taking place in another gun-free zone, the shooter acquired his firearms legally and also used a handgun with a suppressor.
The use of a suppressor in this shooting made the media go wild. Certain Democratic officials like New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez immediately called for a ban on these accessories. Even President Donald Trump said, “I don’t like them at all,” when asked about what to do about suppressors.
Indeed, the media have gone on a massive misinformation campaign labeling suppressors as “silencers,” but these devices do not completely silence guns whatsoever. These ill-informed opinions are more likely to come from what journalists have seen in Call of Duty videogames or Hollywood movies. In an article for the Washington Post, gun violence researcher John Lott highlights what the sound suppressing capacities of suppressors actually entail:
The .45 caliber handgun used in the Virginia Beach attack creates sounds that measure at 158 decibels. The average suppressor reduces the sound by around 30 decibels. But 128 decibels is still very high — virtually the same as peak crowd noise in a stadium. If you use a suppressor in conjunction with earmuffs, you can get the sound down to about 100 decibels, which is about as loud as an average motorcycle.
Furthermore, these accessories can’t be acquired by law-abiding individuals with ease. For starters, suppressors are already heavily regulated by the National Firearms Act of 1934. To acquire this accessory, the government imposes a $200 fee. As of early 2017, approximately 1.3 million Americans were already registered with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATF) as suppressor owners.
From a crime frequency standpoint, crimes that involved firearms equipped with suppressors are statistically insignificant in the country. Lott’s research in the previous article also debunks this:
These legal owners have been extremely law abiding. In the 10 years from 2008 through 2017, the BATF only recommended an average of 44 suppressor-related prosecutions per year. This means that roughly .003 percent of “silencers” are used in crimes each year.
Calls for tightened regulation of suppressors or even bans will do nothing to stop acts of gun violence. Not only that, the forgotten men in a potential suppressor ban scenario are the gun owners with hearing problems. Suppressors aren’t designed for Bond villains who want to pick off people in the shadows. They help certain segments of the gun community with acute hearing problems. Although suppressors don’t completely silence firearms, they do an adequate job in reducing shooters’ noise exposure. The Center for Disease Control details this in a report:
The only potentially effective noise control method to reduce students’ or instructors’ noise exposure from gunfire is through the use of noise suppressors that can be attached to the end of the gun barrel.
In their zeal “to do something” our enlightened political class often enacts regulations that hurt the most disadvantaged in society. A suppressor ban would be no exception to this trend.
The Very Real Threat of Over-Bureaucratization
Both the media and its pro-gun opponents mostly focus on gun laws and conventional methods to carrying out gun policy. But what’s often ignored is the massive bureaucratic monstrosity in the background that micromanages all gun affairs in America.
This bureaucratic “Deep State,” if you will, poses a major threat to gun rights in America. For a start, the usual suspect of the ATF and the way it creates arbitrary policies to crack down on gun owners give us an unsettling image of bureaucratic tyranny.
Under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s stewardship of the Justice Department, ATF continued the Obama administration’s vigorous gun control enforcement program. Knowing how things work in DC, simply selling a gun without the right government seal of approval could land an individual in prison. Despite Trump’s marketing himself as the most “pro-gun” president in American history, the Justice Department banned bump stocks under his watch. The manner in which this ban was carried out — bureaucratic fiat — is rather troubling.
Let’s look back: When was the last time a bureaucrat was ever unseated at the ballot box? Bad legislation can at least be tied to politicians who are susceptible to the wrath of voters come election season. The same cannot be said about bureaucracy. This harkens back to Ludwig von Mises’s astute observation that “the worst law is better than bureaucratic tyranny.”
A Bi-Partisan Consensus
Thomas Massie is one of the few elected officials in Washington DC who actually understands the problems that government-mandated gun-free zones present. As a result, he has filed the Safe Students Act which repeals the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act (GFSZA) — the legislative source of today’s “gun-free zone.”
Given Democratic control of the US House, this bill will likely not receive a hearing, let alone pass out of this chamber of Congress. However, it’s naïve to assume this bill would pass by default under Republican control of all branches of government. Massie introduced similar bills on prior occasions in 2017 and 2018, when there were solid Republican majorities and it still was not able to pass.
Despite, a lot of generic Republican talking points about how Joe Biden (which he deserves some blame for) sponsored the 1990 Gun-Free School Zones Act, it was still a Republican president, George H.W. Bush, who ultimately signed the 1990 Gun-Free School Zones Act into law. In sum, both parties have had their hands in the gun control cookie jar.
Some people suggest that the courts, not Congress, will save us from decades of constitutional violations. This is particularly relevant on the issue of suppressors when looking at a recent case that could have been heard by the Supreme Court.
In 2017, two individuals — Shane Cox and Jeremy Kettler — were sentenced for violating federal law. Cox waspunished for the manufacture and sale of a suppressor without paying the mandatory federal license and tax, whereas Kettler was punished for the possession of this accessory. The attorney general, Derek Schmidt, refused to take action against the federal agents, despite Kansas’s nullification law on the books. Cox and Kettler were left with no choice but to go through the courts to plead their case.
They argued the federal government’s action violated their rights as protected by the Bill of Rights, and that they should have been protected by Kansas’s law. Their case ended up going to the Supreme Court, but was ultimately dismissed.
It’s no stretch to say that all branches of the federal government have been tepid at best when dealing with the rollback of unconstitutional policies.
José Niño is a Venezuelan-American freelance writer.