Growing up, Rep. Jeff Duncan didn’t wear earplugs or muffs when he went out to shoot guns with his dad.
Now 51 years old and hard of hearing in his left ear, the South Carolina Republican can’t help but think it might have been prevented.
This isn’t the only reason he’s pushing legislation to make it easier to buy suppressors, accessories that screw onto the barrels of guns to muffle the sounds of bullet shots. But it’s one of them.
It also provides a personal and emotional element to an issue that is inextricably tied to the equally personal and emotional – and partisan – politics of the gun control debate.
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Unwittingly, Duncan is writing the next chapter in the ongoing saga between hunters and city dwellers, between gun rights advocates and people whose neighborhoods have become murderous shooting galleries.
The specifics of this debate boil down to fundamental disagreements about suppressors and how they work. Opponents say “silencers” is a more apt name, since criminals can use them to open fire on innocent civilians and no one will hear the shots from afar.
Supporters counter that suppressors never make gunshots silent. Besides, if bad actors want to shoot with a suppressed firearm under the current system, nothing is stopping them consulting the internet to to illegally find one.
Duncan’s allies call the Hearing Protection Act a gift to outdoorsmen and women who want to protect their hearing but don’t want to be encumbered by headgear that blocks out “good” sounds, such as deer rustling through the leaves.
“We could have named this bill something else,” Duncan explained, “but really it’s about helping hunters be able to protect their hearing and still enjoy their sport and be successful at it.”
Opponents agree it’s a gift – to the National Rifle Association.
"There are plenty of straightforward, nonpartisan ways for Congress to help hunters,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. “Republicans have decided to hold their priorities hostage to the NRA ... It's a disservice to the public to pretend otherwise."
The Republican-controlled committee could move within weeks on the Hearing Protection Act, which is part of the larger Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement, or SHARE, Act.
That means Duncan is running out of time to get Democrats and anti-gun groups to stop mobilizing against his effort.
Making the case
Duncan became interested in gun suppressors only within the last couple of years, learning about them through fellow sportsmen. He still doesn’t own one, and recently had to endure some teasing when he visited the father-and-son team at Nalley Arms, a gun store nestled in an Easley, South Carolina strip mall alongside a nail salon, a tanning parlor and a tailor.
“We keep trying to sell him one,” said the son, David Nalley, whose business specializes in suppressors.
“He told me, ‘I can get a bill through Congress faster than I can get through the wait period,’” quipped Jerry Nalley, the father.
“That’s a good line,” Duncan laughed. “I’m going to use that.”
Duncan conceded the lengthy and expensive process discouraged him. It’s left over from a 1934 law aimed at curbing mob violence and, he said, the mass poaching of waterfowl that if unaddressed would have led to their extinction.
It currently takes 12 to 14 months to legally obtain a suppressor, thanks to the backlog of applications at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The background check requires a $200 stamp. Actual suppressors cost more than $1,000.
The Hearing Protection Act would streamline and shorten the background check requirements to purchase a suppressor, making the process the same as that of purchasing a firearm.
For David Nalley, opposition to Duncan’s bill boils down to “ignorance.”
“I don’t mean that pejoratively,” he said. “But people think the only reason people have silencers is like in the movies, to assassinate someone or do some other bad thing ... Even in South Carolina, where it is perfectly legal to have a silencer, my customers think it’s illegal to have one.”
Duncan is seeing this struggle firsthand as he tries to gain support for his bill from a public health and safety perspective.
In early June, he reserved the U.S. Capitol Police shooting range in Washington for members of Congress to participate in suppressor demonstrations. Few if any Democrats attended.
He has tried to calm tension among Democrats within the 248-member Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, the largest bipartisan contingent of lawmakers. Duncan is a co-chairman. The caucus has traditionally rallied behind the SHARE Act, which typically comes up once every Congress, but the inclusion of the Hearing Protection Act might make unity more difficult this time around.
“It concerns me enough that we’ve talked to them about it,” Duncan said. “At the end of the day I hope they will embrace it.”
So far, four House Democrats in the Sportsmen’s Caucus are cosponsors of the Hearing Protection Act: Caucus Co-Chairman Gene Green and Henry Cuellar, both of Texas; Peter DeFazio of Oregon and Collin Peterson of Minnesota.
Complicating things further, the NRA has made the bill one of its top legislative targets. As one of the most controversial and polarizing advocacy groups, the NRA’s involvement might actually be hurting Duncan’s efforts to make the measure seem more like a common-sense salve than a red meat bid to the GOP base.
Duncan, who has accepted donations from the NRA for years, said he welcomed its support.
“It doesn’t bother me at all,” he said. “In fact, I think it shows some credibility.”
‘Just one long gunshot’
Ultimately, Duncan sees Democratic opposition as motivated by partisan scare tactics.
“My personal perception is they’re catching some pushback from more of the left-leaning, liberal groups that have a misconception about suppressors,” he said.
Democrats are generally loyal to groups that advocate for more restrictions on gun ownership, just like Republicans are generally loyal to the NRA. They are also uninterested in easing existing firearms rules and regulations when Republicans aren’t willing to enforce stricter laws to prevent guns from getting into the wrong hands.
“Lawmakers introduce this bill in the name of safety, yet continue to ... [keep] dangerous people armed with guns,” said Brendan Kelly, spokesman for the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “Background checks [for] all gun sales so felons, domestic abusers and fugitives can't get them is a priority for the American people; it should be one for their Congress too.
“But instead we're talking about how we can make it easier for everyone to get silencers, not how we can make it harder for dangerous people to get guns.”
Democrats also have real worries about how suppressors can muffle gunshot sounds from a distance, making it harder for law enforcement and civilians to hear bad actors at work.
In June, as the Republican Congressional baseball team enjoyed an early morning practice in a Virginia park, a man armed with a 9mm gun and a rifle opened fire on the lawmakers, severely injuring House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and several others.
Coincidentally, the Hearing Protection Act was scheduled to be discussed in the Natural Resources Committee that very same day, but all legislative business was canceled as members reeled from the tragic event. Democrats were quick to point out if Duncan’s bill had been law, the gunman’s weapons might have been outfitted with suppressors, potentially resulting in a very different outcome.
In a recent demonstration for a McClatchy reporter in the back parking lot of Nalley Arms, Duncan fired off several rounds from a suppressed 9mm handgun at a plastic bulls-eye target set against some shrubbery. Standing out in front of the strip mall, Duncan’s shot resembled a dull, faraway clap of thunder.
A rifle shot was so loud it necessitated ear protection even while using a suppressor.
However, Duncan’s wielding of a small .22 pistol couldn’t be heard at all on the other side of the building, even when all was quiet except for the wind and the cars on the road.
A player on the baseball team, Duncan left practice early that June morning – before the shooting – but remains deeply shaken by the episode. At the time, he disputed criticisms of his bill. Today, he continues to defend it against detractors.
“People have embraced this, not just because the suppressor industry has talked with them,” Duncan said. “I really do think a lot of individuals cosponsored this because they fully grasp the reality of shooting unsuppressed firearms and how that can damage your hearing … it only takes one long gun shot over your head.”
Contact: Emma Duman at firstname.lastname@example.org