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Manuela Tobias
By Manuela Tobias October 4, 2017

No, gun silencers wouldn't have worsened the Las Vegas shooting

In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, Hillary Clinton suggested gun silencers could have amplified the bloodshed.

"The crowd fled at the sound of gunshots. Imagine the deaths if the shooter had a silencer, which the NRA wants to make easier to get," Clinton tweeted.

A silencer is the popular name for a suppressor, a canister attached to a gun muzzle that reduces (but doesn’t entirely silence) the sound produced by a gunshot. Some members of Congress have been pushing for legislation that would make it easier for gun owners to use suppressors.

The Hearing Protection Act, introduced in the House of Representatives in January, would lower the restrictions on buying suppressors. As it stands, there is an approximately nine-month approval process and a $200 tax stamp. Act proponents want to streamline purchases to match regular firearm purchases.

We wondered whether introducing suppressors to the Las Vegas shooting would have indeed increased casualties.

Our research shows that a suppressor would not have made a difference in the Las Vegas case, because of the positioning of the weapons and because of the distance of the shooter from the crowd. Clinton’s staff provided no evidence to suggest a different outcome.

How much quieter would it have been?

A shooting weapon produces two sounds. One is the crack of the bullet, which can be heard on most video recordings of the shooting and is produced by the bullet traveling faster than the speed of sound. This is unaffected by suppressors.

Suppressors instead work on the muzzle blast, or the sound the gun barrel produces when it fires.

A typical gunshot is around 150-160 decibels, a level that can cause hearing damage. Suppressors can reduce that sound by around 20-30 decibels, depending on the gun, ammunition, temperature and even humidity.

That’s just below the threshold for instant hearing damage. Experts compared the suppressed sound levels to a jackhammer and a jumbo jet on the tarmac 100 yards away. That’s still fairly loud.

It’s important to note that suppressors are intended to lower the sound for the shooter, not the target. Jeremy Mallette, who has researched suppressors for Silencer Shop, estimated the sound of suppressed gunfire would go up 10 to 15 decibels downrange -- making the impact of the suppressor even lower for those on the receiving end.

Could it have helped in locating the shooter?

The gunman shot at the crowd out of windows on the 32nd floor of the hotel and positioned the guns so that they shot outwards.

If the shooter’s aim was to lower the sound emissions, the room could have better trapped the noise, according to Tom Satterly, the director of development for Asymmetric Solutions, a firearm training firm based in Missouri.

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"If you hang your weapon outside of your window the muzzle blast is going outside," Satterly said. "If you back in -- a foot or farther -- a lot of that sound is absorbed into the room. That’s what snipers do when they’re trying to hide their position."

Suppressed or not, Mallette said adjacent hotel rooms would have heard the sound very loudly.

Marty Langley, a gun-control advocate and a senior policy analyst at Violence Policy Center, pointed to claims from the silencer industry that if the suppressor masks the sound of the gunshot, then the person being shot at can only hear the ballistic crack after it has whizzed by, causing them to think the fire is coming from the opposite direction.

However, Satterly, an Army veteran with combat experience in Somalia, said that neither he nor his colleagues had ever been able to pinpoint the direction the sound originated from -- an effect that is amplified in a loud, urban area like the Las Vegas strip.

"It’s nearly impossible to tell where someone shot you from in an urban environment unless there’s visual cues," Satterly said.

Which brings us to our next point: Langley also pointed out claims from the industry that silencers make shooters less detectable in the dark.

The flash hider that comes with a silencer is designed to minimize the flame the shooter sees coming out of the barrel, which can blind night vision goggles for a couple of seconds. But while it minimizes the flash, it doesn’t eliminate it altogether.

What’s more, it’s a function that can be performed by tools that are already on the market without the same barriers to purchase as suppressors -- and that many rifles are already equipped with.

Langley also pointed out industry claims that silencers can improve accuracy and enable quicker follow-up shots by reducing recoil. That is, they can decrease the barrel’s rising produced by the pressure and gas of the bullet.

Experts agreed a suppressor can slightly improve accuracy, but the effect would have been minimal in the indiscriminate shooting seen in Las Vegas.

Our ruling

Hillary Clinton suggested gun silencers would have worsened the Las Vegas attack in a tweet.

It’s certainly possible that silencers or suppressors could make some shootings worse than they would be otherwise. But the specifics of the Las Vegas shooting don’t fit that scenario. Experts told us it’s highly unlikely a silencer would have made the Las Vegas shooting even more deadly, because of the distance of the shooter from the crowds and because of the crowded, urban environment where the victims were targeted.

Gun silencers can slightly lower the visual and sound impact of a shooter, but experts agreed the impact would have been negligible in the case of Las Vegas.

We rate this statement False.

Clarification: After this report was published, we added language to clarify that Langley was pointing to industry claims about the characteristics of suppressors. 

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"The crowd (in Las Vegas) fled at the sound of gunshots. Imagine the deaths if the shooter had a silencer ..."
in a tweet
Monday, October 2, 2017

Our Sources

Hillary Clinton, Tweet, Oct. 2, 2017

Email interview with Nick Merrill, Hillary Clinton communications director, Oct. 3, 2017

Phone interview with Tom Satterly, director of development at Asymmetric Solutions, Oct. 3, 2017

Phone interview with Tim Schmidt, president of the US Concealed Carry Association, Oct. 3, 2017

Phone interview with Jeremy Mallette, media director at Silencer Shop, Oct. 3, 2017

Phone interview with Adam Winkler, law professor at UCLA, Oct. 3, 2017

Email interview with Marty Langley, senior policy analyst at the Violence Policy Center, Oct. 3, 2017

Email interview with John Pierce, lawyer and gun rights activist, Oct. 3, 2017

Email interview with David Kopel, research director and Second Amendment project director of the Independence Institute, Oct. 3, 2017

Washington Post, Are firearms with a silencer ‘quiet’?, March 20, 2017

Washington Post, The Hearing Protection Act and ‘silencers’, June 19, 2017, Silencers: A Threat to Public Safety, June 2017

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No, gun silencers wouldn't have worsened the Las Vegas shooting

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