What could go wrong? Iowa House legalizes silencers (updated)

Most gun-related bills failed to make it through in the Iowa legislature’s first “funnel” last week. The list of proposals that are dead for this year included efforts to restrict access to firearms (such as Senate File 2179 to close the gun show loophole) and several bills aimed at making guns more available: House File 384 to authorize possession of machine guns and sawed-off shotguns; House File 169/Senate File 251 to allow Iowans with permits to carry concealed weapons on school grounds; House File 172 to allow school employees to carry guns in school; and House File 2012 to allow children as young as 12 to possess handguns.

The trouble is, many incumbents don’t want to face the gun lobby’s wrath in an election year. Many lawmakers want to have something to brag about when pro-gun activists compile scorecards and endorsement lists. Such concerns prompted Iowa House and Senate leaders to revive and eventually pass a 2010 bill to make it easier for Iowans to carry concealed weapons.

I believe the same dynamic prompted Iowa House members to vote overwhelmingly yesterday to legalize firearm suppressors, better known as “silencers” popular for many decades among snipers and assassins.

The National Rifle Association, Iowa Firearms Coalition, and American Silencer Association lobbied hard for House File 2381, a short bill stating,

Any person, trust, corporation, or other entity may possess a firearm suppressor if the firearm suppressor is registered and possessed in compliance with federal law and regulations.

Normally the gun lobby abhors any registration associated with firearms, but that clause is needed because as Alexander Zaitchik pointed out in this excellent piece on the history of silencers and the gun movement’s efforts to legalize them, “Silencers are among the few accessories regulated by the National Firearms Act.”

The National Rifle Association’s lobbying arm summarized its case for HF 2381 yesterday.

There are numerous benefits associated with the use of suppressors.  These benefits include increased accuracy due to reduced recoil and muzzle blast, protection from hearing damage and reduced noise pollution.  Increased use of suppressors will help to eliminate noise complaints, which have been used more frequently as an excuse to close shooting ranges, informal shooting areas and hunting lands throughout the country. HF 2381 is an essential piece of legislation that will help to protect hunters and hunting lands well into the future.

Currently illegal to own under Iowa law, suppressors are legal to own under federal law and in 39 states.  While they do not eliminate the sound of a firearm, suppressors do reduce the muzzle report of the gun much in the same way that a muffler reduces exhaust noise from a car or truck. It’s time that hunters in Iowa are able to enjoy the same opportunities available to sportsmen in more than half of the country.  For more information on firearms and suppressors, click here.

Side note: I enjoyed the NRA’s dig at its main competition in the Iowa gun-loving community: “Don’t be fooled by other Iowa-based groups claiming to represent gun rights – they once equated this bill to a ‘cover bill for anti-gunners to hide behind’ and are now trying to take credit that belongs to NRA, IFC and ASA members by claiming responsibility for today’s success!” They’re talking about Iowa Gun Owners, who have trashed the NRA for years and not supported pro-gun bills that supposedly didn’t go far enough in asserting Second Amendment rights. Yesterday Iowa Gun Owners celebrated HR 2381’s passage.

Back to the bill at hand. Zaitchik does a great job blowing up the NRA’s pretense that pro-silencer bills are a public health campaign against hearing loss.

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 reason the public associates silencers with death squads, assassination raids, and mafia hits is because these were the uses [Mitch] 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. […]

“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.”

This “innocuous safety and noise-reduction device” prevents neighbors from hearing gunshots and calling the police in the event of a deadly domestic dispute or drive-by shooting. In a school, movie theater or other crowded public place, it might take a long time for people to realize a mass murderer using a silencer was gunning down victims.

Naturally, proponents of HF 2381 didn’t acknowledge any possible public safety concerns during yesterday’s Iowa House debate on the bill.

Representative [Matt] Windschitl responded:  “To insinuate that somehow allowing law-abiding citizens to have that attachment on the end of their firearm is going to create more violence or allow for other tragedies to happen because someone’s not hearing the shot as readily as what they would without a supressed weapon, I find that just ludicrous.” […]

Representative Chris Hagenow, a Republican from Windsor Heights who voted for the bill, calls it “common sense” legislation that addresses the rights of “law-abiding citizens…not the criminals.”

“It’s disappointing that we have to kind of resort to scare tactics and what seems like some of what we’ve devolved to in this debate,” Hagenow said.

Really, Representatives Windschitl and Hagenow? I thought that in your worldview, “the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” How is the good guy with a gun supposed to know anything is wrong if the bad guy can kill people without worrying that others will raise the alarm?

If hearing loss is a problem for gun owners, just wear earplugs or noise-reducing headphones while target shooting.

Although a few House Democrats spoke out against the silencer bill yesterday, the final vote was as lopsided as the 81 to 16 majority when the Iowa House approved the 2010 bill making it easier to obtain a permit to carry concealed weapons (commonly known as “shall issue”).

The House Journal for February 27 (pdf) shows the 83 to 16 roll call in favor of HF 2381: all 53 Republicans, plus the following 30 Democrats: State Representatives Bruce Bearinger, Deborah Berry, Dennis Cohoon, David Dawson, Nancy Dunkel, John Forbes, Chris Hall, Curt Hanson, Bruce Hunter, Chuck Isenhart, Jerry Kearns, Bob Kressig, Dan Lundby, Jim Lykam, Brian Meyer, Helen Miller, Dan Muhlbauer, Pat Murphy, Rick Olson, Tyler Olson, Scott Ourth, Todd Prichard, Joe Riding, Patti Ruff, Mark Smith, Sally Stutsman, Todd Taylor, Phyllis Thede, Mary Wolfe, and Frank Wood. Supporters of the bill represent a diverse range of urban, suburban, and small town/rural districts.

The sixteen House Democrats who voted against the silencer bill were State Representatives Ako Abdul-Samad, Marti Anderson, Ruth Ann Gaines, Mary Gaskill, Lisa Heddens, Anesa Kajtazovic, Dan Kelley, Vicki Lensing, Mary Mascher, Jo Oldson, Kirsten Running-Marquardt, Art Staed, Sharon Steckman, Roger Thomas, Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, and Cindy Winckler. Most of them represent urban districts. Democrat Dave Jacoby was absent for the vote.

In a sense, yesterday’s vote was a freebie for House Democrats, because the Iowa Senate is not planning to move the silencer bill forward. Voting for HF 2381 may help some incumbents win the endorsement of the NRA’s legislative arm, or at least not provoke a strong effort by the gun lobby to unseat them.

Nevertheless, I appreciate the sixteen lawmakers who voted their conscience, even at a potential political cost.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Rob Hogg told WHO-TV, “We’ll take a look at that but it’s my plan not to take up any firearm legislation this year.”

For those closely following the Democratic primary in Iowa’s first Congressional district, John Deeth points out in the comments that Anesa Kajtazovic was a no on this bill, while Pat Murphy was a yes vote. As Iowa House speaker, Murphy also voted for the 2010 “shall issue” bill.

UPDATE: State Representative Mary Wolfe explained her vote on Facebook as follows:

OK, folks, I voted yes on the Suppressor/Silencer bill – here’s why: Silencers are heavily regulated by federal law, and as far as I was able to determine there’s absolutely no data indicating that silencers have been the cause of injuries or deaths in any of the 39 states in which silencers are already legal. If Dems are a knee jerk “hell no” on every gun bill, and/or on every bill supported by the NRA, even when there’s no empirical evidence that the proposed law endangers Iowans, we completely lose our credibility when we speak out against “gun bills” that actually are dangerous – e.g., stand your ground and constitutional carry. I respect the choice of the Dems who voted no on the bill, but I’m annoyed by the suggestions I’ve seen all over blog posts that we Dems who voted for the bill betrayed our party’s values and/or sold out to the NRA. I was there during the subcommittee and participated in many discussions re the bill w my colleagues, and I can assure you we did our research, and spoke w our local law enforcement officers, and read the many emails requesting our support for the bill, and voted yes on this bill because we saw no legitimate reason to vote no. Because the fact that “it’s a gun bill” is not, in and of itself, a legitimate reason to vote no. IMO.

Wolfe also linked to this article from the Western Criminology Review suggesting that few criminals use silencers.

Whether strict federal regulations on silencers remain in place will depend on which party controls Congress and the presidency in the years to come.

That said, I agree that House File 2381 is not as important as other gun-related legislation such as “stand your ground” or the 2010 “shall issue” bill. In the grand scheme of things, many realities of modern life are more dangerous than silencers. Across the country, the overuse of antibiotics leads to an estimated 23,000 preventable deaths annually from drug-resistant bacterial diseases. But Iowa lawmakers can’t talk about that, much less do anything about it, because the ag lobby is more powerful at the statehouse than the gun lobby.

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  • Anesa Kajtazovic a No

    Pat Murphy a Yes.

  • Voting no

    I’m glad the Silencer 16 voted no, but lets be honest…with the possible exception of the venerable Roger Thomas, they are all in safe districts, so not exactly a profile in courage. Legislators in swing districts must pick their fights.

    In the larger picture, It is stunning to take a close look at what gets voted on in the legislature. We are getting blown away by climate change, we’re polluting our water supply and poisoning the Gulf of Mexico, our children are falling behind the rest of the world in education, etc etc etc. What gets debated on the floor the Iowa House? Silencers and drones. THESE are the important issues of our time? Awful.  

    • Leadership priorities

      Windschitl is an Assistant Majority Leader who lists his occupation as gunsmith.  His bio indicates that he went to Colorado School of Trades to study gunsmithing after being homeschooled.  Oh, and he still occasionally works in the family gun store, too.

      I’m sure he’d be pushing more gun legislation if he could. They know it won’t go past the House, however.  But they have members who need to show their pro-gun credentials, so they have to run something.  I think he also ran the Stand Your Ground Bill last time.  

      He, too, took a verbal swipe at Iowa Gun Owners on the floor of the House during that debate.  Of course, they’re run by Kent Sorenson’s friend.  The Iowa Republican doesn’t speak highly of them, either.  Interesting intraparty dynamics.