Suppressed Perspective

“He had a suppressor? That’s unique.”

This was from a Gun Facts fan email during the breaking news cycle of the mass public shooting in Virginia Beach. The point being made was that by his reckoning, firearm suppressors were not often used in mass public shootings (MPSs).

Fact is, they are not used in crimes much at all, which makes the desire of some politicos to ban suppressors an amusing example of uninformed policy pontification.

Major Takeaways

  • BATF traced 97 suppressors in all of 2016.
  • This is 0.01% of those in circulation.
  • Suppressors are ignored by criminals for the same reasons they rarely use derringers or machineguns.

What the BATF Tracked

We used 2016 for this review of suppressors for the reason that it is recent, we could get other crime data easily, and it skipped 2017 when there was a mass BATF trace of suppressors recovered in one state, which was a very atypical blip on the trend lines.

WARNINGS: Before going further, we need to note that comparing instances where the BATF traced the origin of a weapon – including suppressors – against crime data is a loose fit. The BATF often traces weapons not used in crimes, which makes for an imperfect match. However, for the sake of ballpark perspective, it is “good enough.”

According to the BATF, there were just shy of a million suppressors in circulation in the United States… that they know of. No doubt a few hobbyists or enterprising criminals have made their own, but the expertise, tooling, machinery and such needed to make a suppressor is more than either the typical hobbyist or criminal has time or inclination for.

Of the 902,805 suppressors in private hands in 2016, 97 were traced by the BATF. Keep in mind that some/many/all of these may not have been used in a crime – they may have been recovered under other circumstances (“Well, eccentric old Uncle Wally had a couple of licensed suppressors in his collection when the heart attack came… the BATF wanted to be sure, so they traced them”).

BATF Traced Weapons by Type - 2016This means that only 0.01% of all suppressors were even remotely thought to have maybe been of criminal possession. The trace percentage for machineguns is 0.15% – more than 10 times as often per capita – indicating a greater rate of recovery from suspects.

This is our first clue as to why suppressors are not used very often at all in crime.

This ugly pie chart shows the 2016 BATF traces by weapon type. Of interest is the cluster of weapons types, highlighted in red, in the upper-right. We know from long-term data that these weapons are rarely used in crimes, despite millions of them being in circulation. It begs the question “What is similar about these as far as crime goes?”

The answer is cost versus utility.

That Heater Will Cost ‘Ya

Most gun crimes are street crimes. As such, there are a few very relevant factors in the choice of weapons used:

  • It must be concealable, because street criminals move about: According to one web site, the most popular 9mm pistol in 2016 (9mm being the most popular round for street criminals) was the Smith & Wesson M&P Shield, which has a length just over six inches (and I’ll avoid all unsavory references to other concealed six-inch weapons in pants, though the contrast might help some people visualize the realities). The first suppressor I found for that pistol measures eight inches, more than doubling the length of the gun, making it 14+ inches total, or about the length from my balled fist to my elbow (forearm+hand). That is also most of the length of my upper leg. So, a highly concealable handgun has instantly become hard to conceal (or fetch). Strike one.
  • It must get the job done: Suppressors do not materially effect accuracy of handguns, aside from the extra weight possibly throwing off the shooter’s balance. It does not improve the gun’s operation. A suppressed 9mm is about 126 decibels, louder than a jet taking off at 200 feet away. So, criminals do not benefit from non-detection of their crimes by using a suppressor (indeed, in neighborhoods where gunfire is common, why bother muffling gunshots at all). The only possible benefit a suppressor might provide a criminal would be by changing the identity of the sound so that ear-witnesses might be uncertain if it were a gunshot they heard. But again, in rough neighborhoods where snitching is a life-ending move, this is a non-problem. Strike two.
  • Being a poor street thug, it has to be affordable: Various reports say the typical price for a “hot” pistol from an underground dealer is $50–150. In reality, it is often “free” since many guns are stolen or bartered. The price of the suppressor mentioned above is $745, five times the high-end price of the gun. Strike three.

To summarize this all, for the most common forms of gun crime, suppressors add no advantage, impede concealability, and are very expensive… if you can find them at all.

Criminal motivation guides policy

Good policy should:

  • Address a specific, recurring endangerment.
  • Be based on the disease, not the symptom.
  • Be actionable.

The proposed bans on suppressors are none of the above.


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