Open Source Defense

Silencers are the perfect accessory. So how do we explain the opposition to them?

Kareem Shaya
June 10, 2019   |   5 minute read

One standard explanation for how gun laws come about goes something like this:

  1. Someone commits a mass murder using a particular type of weapon.
  2. Gun control groups and some politicians study the issue and decide that that type of weapon causes more harm than it prevents, and ought to be banned.
  3. A debate ensues between those parties and gun rights advocates about how much harm the weapon in question causes and prevents, and what in fact, if anything, ought to happen to it.

This view does have some explanatory power if you’re trying to model gun control groups’ behavior. It explains aspects of the 1989 assault weapon ban and of various state-level bans. Where it starts to falter is as bans deviate from targeting functional differences.

Standard-capacity magazines make a functional difference. Gun rights folks say that that’s no reason to ban them, that they benefit lawful shooters much more than they benefit criminals, and so on. Gun control groups agree that mags make a functional difference, but believe that only the police can be trusted with them. So it’s a debate, but it’s at least a fairly coherent debate. It’s about whether a weapon’s effectiveness accrues more to defensive or offensive users, and about who gets to decide.

Moving to assault weapon bans, the coherence starts to falter. Here’s a photo from the good folks at Pew Pew Tactical. The rifles below are functionally identical, but note the difference in the grips. In California, the grips on the bottom two rifles are perfectly legal, but the grip on the top one will send you to prison for up to three years.

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Why? The shape of the top one is defined as an “assault-style” shape of grip, and that’s a crime.

But even on this, people do attempt at least a symbolic cost-benefit calculation. Everytown has a fact sheet on their site about assault weapon bans. Fine, it’s quite hand-wavey; and yes, it’s based on the sort of low-effort correlational assertions that keep statistics teachers up at night; but hey, it’s an effort. They’re at least going through the motions of, “We did science about it and these specific grips are killing too many people.”

But this model of the debate finally collapses when you get to silencers. Silencers uncover a new model that has much more explanatory power: it’s not a debate about numbers, it’s a debate about what should be normalized and what should be stigmatized. It’s pure memetics.

To understand this, first we have to understand silencers. And the basics are, well, pretty basic: suppressed gunfire is still incredibly loud. Here’s a chart from Brownells:

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Suppressed gunfire is 10 decibels louder than a jackhammer. Decibels are a logarithmic scale, so +10 dB means 10 times the sound pressure. Because pressure dissipates in three dimensions, perceived loudness grows as the cubic root of the sound pressure. Therefore 10 times the sound pressure means a hair over double the perceived volume.

In other words, suppressed gunfire sounds twice as loud as a jackhammer.

Unless they’ve been present when a bomb goes off, unsuppressed gunfire is the loudest sound most people will hear in their life. A silencer takes gunfire from that down to something twice as loud as a jackhammer. Still loud, and it’s still important to wear hearing protection, but the noise is just short of the level that will cause instant permanent hearing damage.

You can hear a jackhammer from blocks away. So the first-order good news is that you can hear suppressed gunfire from at least that far away.

But wait, there’s more. Silencers are actively harmful for criminals. On one hand, they add zero utility: the gun’s still audible from blocks away, and still pops up on ShotSpotter. And on the other hand it only gets worse: silencers are less concealable, one more point of failure, and less disorienting to victims. (By definition an attacker has more time to plan than defenders do, and so can bring hearing protection. Victims can’t.)

There’s empirical evidence that silencers aren’t useful for criminals: they’ve been trivial to illegally manufacture at home for ages (buy-an-oil-filter-at-Pepboys trivial), but they’re essentially never used in crime. Concealability is the overriding priority for criminal effectiveness, as BJ Campbell explained a few months ago.

If criminals wanted silencers, they would already have them. There hasn’t been anything stopping them. The reason they don’t use them is because, well, they’re a net negative if you have criminal intent.

In a weird way, then, it turns out that silencers are the perfect accessory. They increase safety for lawful shooters; make it easier to teach newbies; are only useful in self-defense at home, in hunting, and in recreation; and are actively counterproductive for criminal violence. According to the model we started this essay with, gun control groups should love silencers.

Narrator: “They did not love silencers.”

Our first model, where this is a debate about costs and benefits, cannot account for this. Silencers are manifestly a net positive.

Our second model explains this a lot better. In a debate about what to normalize and what to stigmatize, anything that helps normalize the thing you oppose is ipso facto bad. So to repeat the virtues of silencers from above: they make shooting safer and easier to learn, and only benefit lawful shooters.

But in this halal vs. haram model, that’s not a feature, that’s a bug. The problem with silencers is that they only benefit lawful shooters — they accrue 100% towards normalization and 0% towards stigma.

So in that sense, depending which meme one is trying to spread, that makes silencers pretty dangerous after all.

It also makes them an efficient sorting function. Anyone opposed to silencers is likely using a “kosher or unclean?” mental model when they think about guns. That’s no reason to judge them — that model is perfectly normal for people who, like most, are busy and only hear about this stuff in passing. It simply gives you a useful signal about where they’re starting from on this.

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