Silencers: The NRA's latest big lie

Silencers could give the next Adam Lanza even more time to kill -- but to the NRA, they protect kids' hearing

Published December 30, 2012 12:00PM (EST)

     (<a href=''>Kuzma</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Kuzma via Shutterstock)

A gruesome holiday season exercise: Think of some firearms and accessories that might have added to the body counts of Aurora and Newtown. More starkly, imagine the means by which coming Auroras and Newtowns will be made more deadly.

The exercise starts with a militarized baseline, as both shooters unloaded designed-for-damage rounds from high-capacity magazines loaded into assault rifles. Improving their killing efficiency would require one of two things: the ability to shoot more bullets faster, or more time. A fully automatic machine gun would provide the first. More minutes to hunt, meanwhile, might be gained by employing a noise suppressor, those metallic tubes better known as silencers. By muffling the noise generated with every shot by sonic booms and gas release, a silencer would provide a new degree of intimacy for public mass murder, delaying by crucial seconds or minutes the moment when someone calls the police after overhearing strange bangs coming from Theater 4 or Classroom D. The same qualities that make silencers the accessory of choice for targeted assassination offer advantages to the armed psychopath set on indiscriminate mass murder.

It should surprise no one that the NRA has recently thrown its weight behind an industry campaign to deregulate and promote the use of silencers. Under the trade banner of the American Silencer Association, manufacturers have come together with the support of the NRA to rebrand the silencer as a safety device belonging in every all-American gun closet. To nurture this potentially large and untapped market, the ASA last April sponsored the first annual all-silencer gun shoot and trade show in Dallas. America’s silencer makers are each doing their part. SWR Suppressors is asking survivalists to send a picture of their “bugout bag” for a chance to win an assault rifle silencer. The firm Silencero — “We Dig Suppressors and What They Do” — has put together a helpful “Silencers Are Legal” website and produced a series of would-be viral videos featuring this asshole.

This Silencer Awareness Campaign is today’s gun lobby in a bottle. The coordinated effort brings together the whole family: manufacturers, dealers, the gun press, rightwing lawmakers at every level of government, and the NRA. Each are doing their part to chip away at federal gun regulation in the name of profits and ideology. Together, they plan to strip the longstanding regulatory regime around silencers, and reintroduce them to the gun-buying public as wholesome, children-friendly accessories, as harmless as car mufflers.

In case you’re wondering, the answer is yes, the gun lobby’s grand strategy rests grotesquely on fake concern for child hearing health. Among the opening shots in the campaign was a feature in the February 2011 issue of Gun World, “Silence is Golden,” penned by the veteran gun writer Jim Dickson. “One only has to look at children in the rest of the world learning to shoot with silencers, protecting their tender young ears, to see what an innocent safety device we are talking about here,” writes Dickson. “To use an overworked propaganda phrase, legalize silencers ‘for the sake of the children.’” [Emphasis mine.]

Proponents of healthy hearing will be heartened to know the NRA shares Gun World’s concern for America’s tender young ears. The organization officially entered the silencer-awareness fray in November of 2011, around the time the Utah-based American Silencer Association was founded. It’s opening statement took the form of an article posted to its lobbying division website: “Suppressors: Good for our hearing… And for the shooting sports.” With this piece, the NRA finally acknowledged the relationship between health care costs and guns.

“Billions of dollars are spent every year in our healthcare system for hearing loss conditions, such as shooting-related tinnitus,” explained the NRA. It was a very important point that had long been overlooked in the gun control debate; because if there is a single pressing gun safety issue in America today, it is the hearing, comfort and convenience of recreational shooters who find orange earplugs unsightly. The NRA is also extremely concerned about the fright children may receive from shooting or standing near the reports of high-caliber weapons. These jolts could have a lasting and detrimental developmental impact, possibly imbuing America’s impressionable and tender young brains with the notion that guns are loud, dangerous things. The NRA firmly believes that American freedom is best served by giving 9mm gunfire the feel and sound of a toy cap gun. As the NRA’s Lacey Biles put it during last April’s Dallas Silencer Shoot, silencers are good for “getting younger folks involved [in guns]. They’re less afraid of the loud bang.”

For these reasons, the NRA believes America must “move to eliminate the laws, regulations and policies that discourage or prohibit suppressor use.”

And move we have. The NRA has enjoyed state-level success chipping away at restrictions on the use of silencers around the country, an effort that has proceeded largely unnoticed in the shadows of higher-profile battles over the spread of Concealed Carry and Stand Your Ground laws. Silencers are currently legal with permit in 40 states, a growing number of which are rescinding bans on their use while hunting.

The gun lobby’s silencer campaign has bigger prey in mind than state hunting laws. Silencers are among the few accessories regulated by the National Firearms Act. To purchase or transfer a silencer, you must acquire a special license, enter the serial number in a federal registry, and pay a $200 fee. (The fee, which equaled a de facto ban in 1934, has not been adjusted for inflation in 79 years.) For gun extremists who struggle with introductory-level American history and political theory, the licensing regime is half Stamp Act, half Yellow Badge. What most outrages the manufacturers about the regime is that it works. By licensing silencers, tracking and taxing their exchange, the government has kept them from flooding the market like so many other military-market gun accessories with cameos in recent massacres and serial sniper attacks. “Simple licensing requirements weeds out both blatant criminals and a certain kind of stockpiling insurrectionist who refuses to engage with the federal government,” says Ladd Everitt of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “The law has been effective.”

Aside from offering a very expensive alternative to earplugs, what conceivable sporting or personal-defense purpose is served by pouring silencers into a gun market dominated by semi-automatic pistols and assault rifles? If history offers any useful clues, and it usually does, the answer is none. The history of the silencer is a twentieth century tale populated by Mafiosi hits, hidden snipers, and special ops ambush teams. It all adds up to decades worth of “negative branding baggage” that the gun lobby is now trying to scrub away like a used car-salesman winding back the speedometer on a lemon.

The silencer began innocently enough. When Hiram Percy Maxim patented the first silencer in 1908, he was just a nice fellow working in the family business, a guy who simply enjoyed finding ways to make loud things quiet. Among Maxim’s many other inventions was an early muffler design for car engines. A quarter-century later, silencers still hadn’t acquired the bad rep they have today. Their best-known criminal use at the time of the 1934 law was as an aid in late-night poaching.

Society did not form its lasting perceptions of the silencer in the decades of Percy’s .22 pistols and midnight pig poaching. The image the NRA must scrub is the one that formed early in what might be called the Second Silencer Age, when a new breed of steel “cans” emerged and became associated with rapid, discreet, controlled killing. The silencers the gun lobby is trying to mainstream can make ninjas of high-caliber handguns, long-barrel sniper rifles, and assault weapons, all commonly featured in military-themed silencer ads. The Second Age that produced these tools was commenced not by a charming dynastic American industrial engineer with wide interests like Percy Maxim. Rather, it was born in the rural Georgia kill-gadget lab of a notoriously cracked and ruthless CIA black ops contractor, known in gun circles as the Wizard of Whistling Death.

*   *   *

Mitch WerBell gained his reputation for cold-blooded efficiency during his days with the CIA’s wartime precursor, the OSS. After the war he maintained his ties to the Agency as a man who could be depended on to figure out how make problems go away. His accomplished his revolutionary leap in silencer technology in 1967, during a short break from international intrigue. The previous year, federal agents raided WerBell’s mercenary training camp in Florida, where he was in the final stages of preparing an army of Miami-based Cubans to invade Haiti and oust “Papa Doc” François Duvalier.

WerBell patented his silencer under the name of his boutique weapons development firm, SIONICS, or Studies In the Operational Negation of Insurgents and Counter-Subversion. WerBell’s silencer was the first to successfully muffle automatic and semi-automatic weapons fire. On some weapons, the silencer also increased accuracy and power. Knowing he had a big breakthrough on his hands, WerBell convinced a group of rich investors that his invention would make them new fortunes, and just maybe win the Cold War for the West along the way. Oddly, the gang of investors included the eccentric and liberal antiwar philanthropist Stewart R. Mott. According to some accounts, WerBell sold Mott by telling him the principles behind the silencer could be adapted to lawn mowers and other devices to reduce suburban noise pollution.

WerBell’s silencer not only decreased the volume of the gun’s report and increased its accuracy; it also reduced the powder flash of machine gun fire, opening up new possibilities for nighttime ambush and assassination missions. WerBell packed his silencer and flew to Indochina, where he wowed American and South Vietnamese brass. Orders from the Pentagon soon followed, and in 1968 WerBell began large-scale production of his silencers under a SIONICS subsidiary he named Environmental Industries, a sarcastic reference to his intended contribution to solving the strains of overpopulation.

The timing of the new silencer’s introduction to Vietnam was just right for business. By 1968, the U.S. had pivoted from away from its early strategy that included an effort to “win hearts and minds,” and had embraced a model of search-and-destroy exemplified by the death squads of the CIA’s Phoenix Program. The M-16s carried by these special units were retrofitted with SIONICS silencers. They soon reported increased lethality and accuracy in ambushes and targeted killings. In his out-of-print 1978 masterpiece, "Spooks," former Harper’s editor Jim Hougan reports that Green Beret officers singled WerBell’s invention out for praise in Congressional budget hearings.

According to Hougan, WerBell consumed the Army’s official kill counts like a 12-year-old reads box scores. From his compound in Georgia, he relished Pentagon data demonstrating his silencer’s economy and lethality. In the late 1970s, he boasted to Hougan that Army rifles equipped with his silencers helped kill nearly 2,000 Vietcong in the first six months, and reduced the number of bullets per kill to one-point-three rounds, a feat he boasted was “the greatest cost-effectiveness the Army’s ever known.” Whatever the actual numbers, the SIONICS silencer was widely recognized as a huge advance in the science of killing. WerBell emerged from the shadows to become a patriotic cult hero to the fathers of those now agitating for silencer deregulation. In 1972, WerBell played a starring role in David Truby’s admiring study of these new tools and their uses, "Silencers, Snipers, and Assassins: An Overview of Whispering Death."

WerBell didn’t stop tinkering after reinventing the silencer. He also developed the gun he thought his silencer deserved. The result was the ultimate greaser. The ultra-sleek and compact MAC 11 weighed and sized little more than a conventional pistol and spat 14 bullets per second, or 850 a minute. Had WerBell been working today, he might have produced a semi-automatic version for the civilian market. In the early 1970s, the Pentagon was the only game in town. WerBell fought hard for but failed to land a massive contract to make the MAC a standard-issue weapon. Had he succeeded, SIONICS might be a household name today. (This is how gun empires are born. Gaston Glock designed his first gun competing in an open tender bid to produce a sidearm for the Austrian Army.)

The Pentagon’s rejection was the first of two that deepened WerBell’s bitterness at the government he served for so long. As he courted clients among foreign intelligence agencies, the State Department denied him an export license, arguing that the spread of WerBell’s silencers was likely to increase the risk of assassinations around the world. A sign of saner times gone by, there was in the early 1970s no American Silencer Association to help WerBell market his products to preppers with “bugout bags,” and no Wayne LaPierre or Chris Cox to strategize state and national-level assaults on the National Firearms Act. Instead, WerBell the Wizard of Whistling Death hit the road to peddle his remaining inventory on the global grey and black markets. He sold his wares out of a suitcase like the house-calling gun dealer in Taxi Driver, shooting up stacks of telephone books before giddy prospective clients who marveled over the little machine gun emitting such seductive sibilance, ssyyyt ssyyyt ssyyyt, the contract killer’s lullaby.

Before leaving the sideshow stage of history, WerBell made one last lunge for greatness. His hopes of building a gun empire stymied, in 1972 WerBell began planning an amphibious invasion of a tiny Bahamanian archipelago known as Abaco, which was home to a small separatist movement. WerBell enlisted financial support from real estate mogul and Libertarian Party leader Mike Oliver, whose Phoenix Foundation existed to seed utopic Libertarian projects like the one WerBell imagined on the beaches of Abaco — an independent global tax haven, home of SIONICS headquarters, and the Undisputed Silencer Capital of the World. As with his planned invasion of Haiti eight years prior, WerBell was still training his mercenaries when the whole thing fell apart from infighting and a surprise visit from the Feds.

*   *   *

Telling Mitch WerBell’s story is just a long way of demonstrating why the new NRA-backed Hearing Heath First! silencer-promotion campaign is a particularly hideous and towering architectural example of the Gun Lobby’s Nouveau Bat Shit Style, which if not ridiculed and condemned is guaranteed to crash down on all of us, leading to new and yet more lethal mutations in our national plague of gun violence.

There are very good reasons why the silencer industry is contending with a nasty case of Vietnam Syndrome. The reason the public associates silencers with death squads, assassination raids, and mafia hits is because these were the uses WerBell had in mind when he engineered them. They are also the uses to which they are best suited and most needed, if that’s the word. It wasn’t all that long ago that even the Freaks of Fairfax understood that the silencer’s dark reputation was deep and well deserved. As recently as 2000, the NRA showed a rare sensitivity for public perceptions and forbade a silencer manufacturer from exhibiting its wares at the NRA’s national convention. Kevin Brittingham, of the silencer maker Advanced Armament Co., says the NRA’s executive office called him before the millennial year convention in Charlotte and told him not to come. “We don’t want the news media focusing on your table and putting guns in a bad light,” the NRA explained.

A decade later, the NRA has cozied up to the industry view that everyone should have a silencer, and that the days are over when WerBell’s toys were the accessory love that dare not speak its name. The NRA now sees the widespread negative view of silencers as a branding problem to be corrected through advertising and public relations.

Toward this end, the gun lobby is on multiple fronts advancing the argument that silencer-phobia is the product of popular culture demonization and sensationalism.

“Unfortunately, too many Americans (including some gun owners) still fall victim to the unfair portrayals of silencers by Hollywood,” the NRA-ILA gently chides its members. Gun World’s Jim Dickson, meanwhile, prays for an America that allows its film industry to assist in “the transformation of an innocuous safety and noise-reduction device to a sinister assassin’s tool in the public mind.”

If anybody reading this needs one more nudge before abandoning in finality the idea of any kind of “dialogue” with the gun lobby, I suggest reading the NRA and the gun press bleat about the way violent movies have besmirched the good name of the honorable American silencer. They’re pointing to the same Hollywood gun makers routinely employ to product-place its wares, from best-selling pistols to fully automatic shotguns. (In 2011, Glock handguns made corporate cameos in 15 percent of No. 1 films.) The gun lobby pointing to Hollywood is as rich as Wayne LaPierre censuring video games, which thrives at the service of the gun-industry in ways we’re just now beginning to understand.

If the current campaign succeeds in delisting silencers from NFA regulation, the gun lobby likely won’t wait long before targeting the remaining regulatory regimes limiting the circulation of fully automatic machine guns and even hand grenades. Do not be surprised when you see a 2014 Gun World feature extolling freshwater blast fishing as a great way to connect kids and nature, while reducing the risks of fishing with sharp steel hooks, some of which have dangerous double jags. If you can’t see the safety rationale here, or the Freedom Logic that undergirds it, then you obviously do not care about America’s children and their millions of young tender fingers.

By Alexander Zaitchik

Alexander Zaitchik is a journalist living in New Orleans.

MORE FROM Alexander Zaitchik

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Adam Lanza Editor's Picks Gun Control Newtown Nra Sandy Hook