Support the news
Just days after the shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building three weeks ago, Christi Dewar described to NPR her first thoughts as the mass shooting unfolded inside her office building.
"We were sitting at our desk and there's construction or remodeling going on, and when we heard the first shots it sounded like a nail gun going off," Dewar said.
Police reports show that the gunman used a silencer in his attack that day, a device that alters the sound of a gun. Silencers, referred to by many in the gun industry as suppressors, are detachable accessories that moderate and reduce the sound of a fire arm when it's discharged.
In Virginia, these devices are emerging as a focal point in the gun debate.
Virginia is one of 42 states where it's legal to purchase a silencer. Law enforcement officials say the Virginia Beach gunman obtained his legally.
The state's Democratic Governor included suppressors among the items he wants banned in his push to tighten Virginia's gun laws. Gun violence prevention advocates say the accessories are a public safety risk because they make it difficult for people to know where shots are coming from.
State Republicans and the National Rifle Association push back against that assessment — saying that the benefits of suppressors include hearing protection for the gun user and less noise pollution for those within earshot of a discharge.
"Suppressors are essentially mufflers for a gun," said Knox Williams, the president and executive director of the American Suppressor Association, at a recent suppressor demonstration at the NRA's headquarters in Northern Virginia.
Williams was part of the team of gun experts who spoke with a small group of journalists explaining that suppressors don't actually "silence" a gun, but rather reduce the sound by 20-35 decibels.
"We don't think that people who want to exercise their Second Amendment right to shoot, hunt, defend themselves should have to sacrifice their hearing in the process," Williams said.
An article by the NRA says that a suppressed pistol produces a sound that's more than 130 decibels, which "is louder than the maximum level of a jackhammer. Not exactly quiet and nothing like a nail gun."
For the demonstration, a mix of handguns and rifles were fired – with and without a suppressor – including a .45-caliber handgun, like one used in the Virginia Beach shooting.
Upon firing, all of the guns were loud and, at least in the NRA's firing range, the suppressor only muffled the sound of the .45 to a certain extent. (To hear the difference, click on the blue play button at the top of the page).
When asked why a shooting survivor like Christi Dewar would say she thought she heard a nail gun, Josh Savani, the director of Research and Information at the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action said, "I don't want to engage in any conjecture about exactly the situation and what the person heard."
"You hear a 'pop, pop, pop' sound, you're going to associate that with gunfire whether its suppressed or unsuppressed. At least I think you will," Savani added.
Some say silencers are a public safety risk
Dana Schrad, the executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, agrees with the NRA that suppressors have their purpose, albeit "in a very limited way."
She says that using a silencer does preserve law enforcement officers' hearing during firearms training, or at a shooting academy, but she adds that suppressors can be an "enhanced risk" to public safety when used in mass shootings.
"When someone is using a silencer on a weapon it's very difficult to isolate the location of the shooter very accurately, or to do so quickly," Schrad says.
David Chipman, a former special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives says that the primary use of suppressors is tactical. He's now a senior policy analyst at Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
"The primary purpose is for someone who is on the offensive to maintain the element of surprise longer, and if that's the intention of an attacker at a workplace, it's really a recipe for disaster," Chipman says.
Along with the ban on suppressors, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has called for a ban on military style weapons, including bump stocks, he called to reinstate Virginia's one-gun-purchase-a month policy and for universal background checks, among other measures
"Not a single one of Gov. Northam's gun control proposals would have prevented what happened at Virginia Beach. That's the bottom line. This is a gun grab by the governor, says Catherine Mortensen, a spokesperson for the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action.
Virginia Democrats have been holding forums around the state to drum up support the tighter gun laws.
If lawmakers approve the suppressor ban during a special legislative session next month, Virginia will join eight other states and the District of Columbia with similar laws on the books.
NPR's Bobby Allyn contributed to this report.
Support the news