A federal operation underway since 2019 has seized tens of thousands of illegal gun silencers smuggled into the United States from China, leading to the arrests of felons and domestic extremists, authorities say.
The effort by four federal law enforcement agencies, dubbed Operation Silent Night, has seized 42,888 illegally imported silencers and 4,868 firearms as of March, and has led to 204 arrests, according to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) report.
In addition to seizing silencers as they come into the country, federal authorities have also shut down the websites that sell them and worked with officials in China to stop the manufacturing of illegal silencers, according to federal law enforcement officials.
The operation “is really a gateway into other illicit activity,” said Robert Hammer, the special agent in charge of the Seattle field office for Homeland Security Investigations, a division of ICE.
Officials continue to see shipments from China, but as the supply of foreign silencers slows because of the crackdown, the threat has evolved, said Stacey Whitehead, an inspector with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. Law enforcement is now also looking out for unlicensed U.S. manufacturers that step in to take the place of Chinese sellers, and authorities are concerned about 3D-printed silencers as well, Whitehead said.
Silencers — tubes that attach to the barrel of a firearm and contain baffles that make the gun quieter and dampen its kickback — generally cost about $350 to $1,600 when bought legally in the United States. Buying one legally requires a special registration process that can take weeks or months and includes submitting fingerprints and paying a $200 tax. It’s illegal to own a silencer if you can’t legally own a gun.
Hammer said Chinese silencers aren’t available on Amazon or through a simple Google search. Instead, links to websites that sell them circulate among gun enthusiasts who often meet through web forums and sites like Reddit. One Chinese site reviewed by NBC News had silencers listed for less than $20 to more than $300. Critically, Chinese websites targeted by this operation don’t require buyers to go through the lengthy registration and background check process.
Many of those who buy silencers from China are firearms collectors who don’t want to spend the time and money to get one legally, Hammer said. But the operation also ensnared felons who can’t buy a silencer legally, as well as domestic extremists who may have wanted to keep their purchases off the books, Hammer said. Several of the searches prompted by the operation turned up explosives, he said.
In one 2020 case, a Seattle man who couldn’t legally own a gun due to past felony convictions was arrested after ordering five silencers from China, according to prosecutors. When agents searched the man’s home, they found 17 handguns and 24 rifles, many of which were unregistered “ghost guns” he had made himself, along with 10 illegal silencers and over 300 pounds of ammunition, prosecutors said. He was sentenced to more than five years in prison.
In another case, federal agents in Boston seized an illegal silencer in 2019 bound for a regional president of the Outlaws Motorcycle Club, a biker gang that has long been associated with criminal activity, including members and leaders convicted of homicide and drug trafficking, according to prosecutors. When agents searched the man’s house, they found several hidden compartments with an AR-15 style “ghost gun,” ammunition, a silencer and silencer parts. He was sentenced to more than two years in prison.
And in another case, federal agents intercepted three silencers shipped from China to the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, home that Joseph P. Berger, 33, a machinist and Navy veteran, shared with his parents. They searched the family’s home in 2021 and found 12 unregistered gun silencers and 13 firearms they say Berger and his father, Joseph R. Berger, had illegally converted into fully automatic machine guns.
Years earlier, the younger Berger made a short-lived gun podcast called Alt-Right Armory full of ethnic slurs, conspiracy theories and “playful thoughts” about political violence. The men have been charged with possessing machine guns, unregistered firearms and unregistered silencers. Both have pleaded not guilty; Joseph P. Berger’s lawyer said in a court filing that while Berger’s podcast comments were “bigoted,” they are protected by the Constitution and there’s no evidence that he acted on them.
Operation Silent Night began in 2019 after officials at Customs and Border Protection’s National Targeting Center, in Sterling, Virginia, noticed a “huge influx” of illegal silencers from China, Whitehead said. It expanded to include the Postal Inspection Service, Homeland Security Investigations and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“We have a deep concern about firearms, firearms parts and accessories moving through the mail stream,” Whitehead said.
The people who are buying the silencers generally know they are breaking the law by buying them from a Chinese website and not registering them with ATF, Hammer said.
“I have not seen an instance where somebody in a post-search interview that was really like, ‘Oh, I had no idea I couldn’t go onto this Chinese site and just order a silencer and it would show up at my house,’” he said.
The silencers are sometimes sold using euphemisms such as “filters,” according to court filings in several criminal cases. Once the manufacturer ships them from China, the shipping manifest can be even more misleading, according to Hammer.
“They’re labeled as machine parts. They’re labeled as metal tubes. They’re labeled as cans,” he said. “But never have they been labeled as a firearm silencer.”