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The U.S. gun industry is trying to shake off the Hollywood hitman image of the gun silencer and rebrand it as a hearing-protection device in a campaign to roll back regulations that date to the 1930s.
Industry lobbying has led to more than a dozen states legalizing silencers for hunting since 2011. Now gun advocates are pressing Congress to repeal a Depression-era law that requires a months-long screening process for silencer buyers — far more scrutiny than gun buyers face.
Sales of silencers — or "suppressors," as the industry prefers to call them — are booming. The number of silencers registered with the U.S. government more than doubled to 792,282 in February 2015 from 360,534 in March 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
Despite their name, silencers can only quiet a gunshot to the level of a jackhammer — not much use for James Bond-style hit jobs.
Silencers are rarely used in crimes, according to a 10-year study published in 2007 by the Western Criminology Review. Researchers estimated silencers were involved in 30 to 40 of the 75,000 federal criminal cases filed each year. The study found only two federal cases involving a silencer used in murders.
Silencers have been tightly regulated since 1934, when Congress restricted access to machine guns, sawed-off shotguns and other weapons used by gangs.
Those wishing to buy a silencer must pay a $200 fee — the equivalent of $3,500 at the time the law was passed — submit fingerprints and a photograph, and secure the approval of their local police chief. Approval by ATF typically takes four to nine months.
Despite these hurdles, silencers have grown in popularity. Inflation has eroded the price of a permit. And a new generation of manufacturers has developed lighter and more affordable products. Prices range from about $200 to nearly $2,000.