A Boy Scouts camp in Maine is now using silencers — the controversial devices that muffle the sound of gunshots — as part of their marksmanship training, thanks to donations from various firearms companies and coordinating efforts by pro-silencer groups.
In July, Camp William Hind in Maine began using 10 silencers donated from two of the leading silencer companies, Gemtech and SilencerCo, Scout Executive Eric Tarbox told VICE News. Gemtech donated eight silencers and SilencerCo gave two. The camp also received a donation of eight .22 rifles and ammunition. Shooting programs have been a central part of Boy Scouts training for decades, but Camp William Hinds, which is overseen by Boy Scouts of America's Pine Tree Council, is the first to use silencers.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) connected Tarbox with the American Suppressor Association (ASA), a pro-silencer advocacy group, NRA spokesperson Lars Dalseide told VICE News. The ASA then acted as a liaison between the Boy Scouts and the manufacturers after the Pine Tree Council expressed interest in acquiring silencers.
The adoption of the silencers, also called suppressors, comes after the camp recently acquired 50 more acres of conservation land and finished constructing a new shooting range, said Tarbox. He said Scout leaders wanted to keep the noise down in the surrounding conservation area.
"The noise of shooting, simply, is sometimes distracting to people trying to enjoy the nature," Tarbox told VICE News. "We wanted to truly embrace the conservation mindset of respecting our neighbors, frankly."
In addition to reducing noise pollution, Tarbox added that the silencers are "about adding an extra modicum of safety for hearing."
Silencers are a way to make membership and camper activities more interesting, ASA president Knox Williams told VICE News. "Really for these kids, for these young scouts, being able for them to say they went out and did something cool is a pretty neat thing," Knox said. "When I was a Scout I absolutely would have used one."
First patented in 1909, the original .22 caliber silencers were sold as a novelty so that shooting enthusiasts could take target practice quietly. The technology was quickly adopted by the military, however, and has historically been associated with gangsters, criminals, and assassins. The possession and manufacture of silencers are tightly regulated under the National Firearm Act, a law passed in 1934 in the years after the Valentine's Day Massacre — which saw six mob associates and a mechanic murdered in Chicago — in an effort to curtail the use of dangerous weapons, including automatic machine guns and sawed-off shotguns.
Yet despite the negative reputation of being a tool for quiet killers, few gun control groups have an official position against silencers. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence declined to speak to VICE News about the issue, saying the group does not have a specific stance on suppressors. The Violence Policy Center also declined to comment on the issue of silencers.
'When I was a Scout I absolutely would have used one.'
New Yorkers Against Gun Violence does not have a specific position on silencers, but the group's director, Leah Gun Barrett, told VICE News that silencers "are notorious for people being able to snuff out other people's lives silently. Any of these things in the hands of civilians are unnecessarily dangerous and can be misused."
Gun companies "are going to dress up [silencers] as being okay, as being actually a reduction in noise pollution," she said, "when actually it's an increase in gun pollution and gun injury."
A Silencer Surge
The Boy Scouts' Camp Hind is the latest indication of the rapid rise in the market for silencers in recent years. The number of registered silencers in the US increased by 177 percent between 2010 and 2015, according to the most recent numbers from the ATF. In the past year, silencer registration increased by nearly 40 percent.
But silencers are still relatively difficult to obtain. If someone wants to legally acquire one, they must pass an extensive federal background check, receive written approval from their chief law enforcement officer, register their silencer with the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and pay a $200 tax. The entire process usually takes nine months to a year.
In an effort to make the process easier, SilencerCo, one of the companies that donated to the Boy Scouts, offers legal services for a $130 fee.
For many years the NRA did not have an explicit stance favoring silencers, in part because of the negative image associated with the devices. This changed in 2011, when the NRA backed a group of gun manufacturers, including Gemtech and SilencerCo, in forming the American Suppressor Association. A primary objective of the ASA, according to the group's website, is to "raise public awareness about the benefits and merits of suppressors through a comprehensive public awareness campaign." In other words, move the association of silencers away from the gangster-associated past and reframe them as a tool for safety.
"Billions of dollars are spent every year in our healthcare system for hearing loss conditions, such as shooting-related tinnitus," the NRA wrote in a 2011 article titled, "Suppressors - Good for Our Hearing… and The Shooting Sports," which extolled the virtues of silencers.
"Sound suppressors attached to firearms… are an additional tool available to help protect our hearing and are quickly gaining in popularity throughout the country," the article said.
Getting silencers into the hands of Boy Scouts is the latest example of how the devices have been rapidly normalized since the days of Al Capone, and, according to Barrett, a direct result of firearms manufacturers attempting to increase gun ownership across the country. "The market is shrinking and the [gun industry] is interested in trying to build it back up," Barret said. Giving Boy Scouts ammunition and accessories such as silencers "is one of their desperate attempts to do so."
The NRA does not deny this strategy. In 2011, one NRA spokesperson said that silencers were important for "getting younger folks involved. They're less afraid of the loud bang," according to Salon.
Gun companies "will do anything they can" to make money, and silencers are a major way to do so, Barrett claimed. Since guns don't wear out, the industry needs to rely on selling accessories, ammunition and add-ons such to keep profiting, Barrett said. Firearms companies make a substantial amount of money from the sale of accessories, sometimes more than the guns themselves.
"There was absolutely a PR aspect to it," Knox said of the decision to donate silencers to the Boy Scouts. "We'd like to see every Boy Scout rifle have a suppressor on it, as well as every shotgun they learn to shoot on have a suppressor on it," he said.
Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: __@obecker928
_This story has been updated since it was initially published to include additional historical information about silencers, noting that the earliest models were marketed for quiet target shooting. _
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