For decades, the closest most people got to a gun suppressor – those metal cylinders that reduce a gun’s bang – was seeing one on a movie screen in the hands of an assassin or gangster.
But sweeping gun legislation has made suppressors, also known as silencers, legal for hunting in North Carolina. Law enforcement authorities are now trying to figure out how to shape policies to implement the new law.
Last week, the legislature passed a far-reaching bill that expands the places where permit holders can legally carry concealed weapons, including bars, restaurants and parks. The legislation also deleted a provision that prohibited hunters from using suppressors.
Rep. Justin Burr, a Republican from Albemarle and one of the bill’s sponsors, said the language about silencers was originally in another Senate bill but was inserted into the legislation at the insistence of Sen. Shirley Randleman, a Republican from Wilkes County.
The change has raised safety concerns among some members of law enforcement and conservation groups.
Nancy Card, who lives in Wilmington, is an outings leader for the Sierra Club. At least once a month when the weather permits, she takes a group of about 15 to 20 men, women and children on hikes through the region’s wooded areas.
Card said the sound of gunshots from a hunter’s weapon serves as a warning that makes others who may be in the woods more aware and perhaps encourages them to leave the area.
“I’m aware of hunting season because I have family members who hunt,” Card said. “But what about others who may not be aware that it’s hunting season? Gunshots are a good tipoff to let others know hunting season is going on.”
Randleman said she originally pursued the amendment as a health issue.
“I was initially contacted by some of my constituents,” she said.
“They had hunted for years and had experienced significant hearing loss, which was attributed to the use of the weapons when hunting. And then I was contacted by some of the audiologists in my district who also told me about the hundreds of people they examine yearly who experience this hearing loss.”
North Carolina is the 40th state to legalize suppressors, a sign of changing opinions about the gun accessories.
“You can go back to the (1930s), when people linked them with a gangster idea,” said Bill Brassard Jr., senior director of communication for the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
“The idea in people’s minds of suppressors is changing,” Brassard said. “Obviously, noise reduction is a big reason, especially when hunting on private land. It’s also a value at shooting ranges. More development can occur around shooting ranges.”
Suppressors reduce the speed of gases that escape from a gun’s barrel, muffling the sound. They can also reduce the amount of recoil.
When the bill was first introduced several months ago, the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association opposed the measure, said its vice president and general counsel, Eddie Caldwell.
“The hunting part is not the issue, but from a public safety standpoint, it’s hard to know where the gunshots are coming from,” he said.
Caldwell said if someone fires a weapon equipped with a suppressor, then others in the woods may not know where the sound came from, how to respond to it and or even which direction to take to get out of the line of fire.
“Those are practical concerns,” he said.
Ultimately, though, the sheriff’s association supported the gun legislation because efforts to repeal the state’s pistol purchase permit were dropped from the measure.
“Thank goodness the legislators took that out of the bill,” Caldwell said.
For hunters, the legalization of silencers means a person can shoot closer to populated areas without drawing the ire of neighbors. That could open up more hunting grounds closer to populated areas.
“It’s still loud enough where game can hear you,” says David Drummond, owner of Carolina Sporting Arms in Charlotte. “The difference is you may not get complaints to the police that Johnny’s shooting his gun again.”
Suppressors are heavily regulated by the federal government. People trying to buy them are required to apply to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and pass a background check, according to U.S. law. They also have to pay a federal tax payment of $200 and get approval from the county sheriff.