May 22, 2014

By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

While it may be making headlines around the state, the lifting of the prohibition on firearms suppressors will likely have little impact on the hunting seasons in Alabama.

Although the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board voted at its May meeting to lift the ban on suppressors, that doesn’t mean hunters will have easy access to the devices.

The fact is, acquiring a firearms suppressor is a time-consuming, costly endeavor that requires the applicant to traverse many hurdles. All costs associated with the suppressor are required up front, which is the cost of the suppressor and a $200 tax levied by the federal government. Local law enforcement, usually the county sheriff, must sign off on the application, and then it will take from five to seven months to get the permit if there is smooth sailing.

“First, we’re not regulating suppressors,” said Kevin Dodd, Chief of Enforcement with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division (WFF). “We’re just allowing those who have legally acquired them to use them for hunting purposes. Getting a suppressor is an arduous process with a good bit of paperwork and money involved. We don’t expect the floodgates to open up for people running out to buy suppressors.”

Although the language that was removed by the Conservation Advisory Board called the device a silencer, Dodd said there is no such thing as a silencer.

“It suppresses the noise, but silencer is a misnomer,” he said. “A large number of the people who requested that the ban be lifted had neighbors who were overly alarmed by rifle shots. You can hear a rifle a long way. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a threat to you or your family. A lot of the calls we get through the course of the year are from people who are overly concerned about hearing gunshots in the distance. People who haven’t been around hunting will get upset about hearing a gunshot. We felt that if the guns weren’t so loud that it would ease a lot of folks’ minds.”

Another reason for lifting the ban was for those new to shooting or hunting with firearms, including women and children, who might be overly apprehensive about loud noises.

“I’m one of them,” Dodd said. “I’m sensitive to loud noise. I can’t help myself. I flinch every time because of the noise. For kids and first-timers, it’s good if you can reduce that noise. It also makes for better marksmanship.”

The third reason for lifting the ban was the use in wildlife management, such as the control of feral pigs or the harvest of does.

“Sometimes that loud report scares the does into the next county,” Dodd said. “So if you can suppress that noise, you may be able to take out three or four pigs as opposed to one. And those does may not be as afraid to come into a food plot.”

Dodd said WFF has actually used suppressors in the past for deer control programs near urban areas.

“People need to understand that these are not the James Bond-type silencers,” he said. “We’ve utilized them in nuisance deer control. They are kinder to the ears, but not completely silent.”

Russ Sockwell, a gunsmith at Mark’s Outdoors in Birmingham, said he also doesn’t expect to see a rush of people trying to get suppressors. Although Mark’s Outdoors doesn’t sell them, Sockwell does thread the end of barrels to accept suppressors.

“I haven’t had any more requests for barrel threading than normal,” said Sockwell. “A suppressor should not affect the accuracy of the guns because the suppressor is lined up with the bore of the firearm and the crown of the barrel is not touched. In theory, it should not change the point of impact. In real life, it’s probably going to change the point of impact, at least a little bit. The biggest problem I think people are going to run into is, for the suppressor to work properly, you have to shoot subsonic ammunition. Most everybody does not do that.

“You don’t get the boom, but you get the loud crack. With subsonic ammunition, your range is going to be diminished tremendously. I just don’t see a lot of people getting them. I think the biggest thing that is going to stop a lot of people is the acquisition of the stamp.”

Joe Songer, staff photographer/videographer with Alabama Media Group/The Birmingham News, has been through the process to acquire the suppressor stamp, and he agrees it’s an arduous process.

Songer said the first step in the process is to find a dealer with a Class 3 firearms license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

“A lot of places just don’t want to do that,” Songer said. “It requires a different level of experience. I know dealers who just don’t want to go through the hassle. People need to know that suppressors are heavily regulated. The ATF gets involved. You have to get an FBI background check. You have to have county and federal officials sign off on your application. You have to have a sheriff or police chief sign off on it. You have to go in and be fingerprinted. You have to get a passport-type photo. All of that gets sent to the ATF. The thing is you’ve got to pay for all this up front about six months prior.”

Songer went through the process to get a suppressor for his .22 Long Rifle firearms.

“I’ve always wanted one, but it’s a commitment,” he said. “I got one for my .22s. When I got mine, ammo was plentiful and not expensive. I wanted to get introduced to it, and I wanted one that I was going to use quite a bit.”

Songer experimented with his suppressed .22s and found that ammunition is a huge component in the amount of noise suppressed.

“The velocity of the round and the barrel it’s coming out of make a huge difference,” Songer said. “A rifle barrel is going to have a higher velocity than a shorter pistol barrel with the same round. On my guns, I have the best luck with rounds at 1,050 feet per second. When it gets up to around 1,100, I start to get that crack from the bullet going supersonic.

“People who are hunting, most of those rounds are supersonic. If somebody takes a hunting rifle and puts a suppressor on and the bullet is traveling at 2,700 feet per second, it’s not going to be silent. It’ll be quieter, but you’re going to get the crack when that bullet breaks the sound barrier. That’s going to happen pretty fast. The thing is, the sound suppression is coming from the muzzle, so it’s going to be harder to tell where it’s coming from.”

Songer agrees with the opinion that there aren’t going to be many hunters who will go to the trouble to acquire a suppressor.

“There are going to be some because there is a cool factor to it,” he said. “But when you apply for a suppressor you’re opening yourself up to a whole lot of scrutiny. And another thing is that the stamp has to be with the suppressor at all times. I can let you shoot it, but I have to be with you and have the stamp with me.”

Dodd said if there’s anything questionable in the applicant’s background, that person is going to be flagged and the application process stopped.

“Even if you get the permit, you’re going to be in their files, so to speak,” Dodd said.

Dodd continued, “Some people said to us, ‘Oh, the night hunters are going to go crazy.’ That’s the same argument we heard about crossbows. It didn’t really come to fruition with crossbows. We’ve actually made night-hunting arrests of people with crossbows. We’ve been able to maneuver around the silent weapon, so to speak. I don’t anticipate any change with suppressors.

“I’d be surprised if even five percent of the hunters decide to get a suppressor stamp. Ear muffs are cheaper.”

PHOTOS: (By Billy Pope) Firearms suppressors, like the one shown by Doug Williamson at The Gun Shoppe in Montgomery, are now legal for hunting in Alabama as long as the hunter has legally purchased the suppressor and carries the federal tax stamp required for all such devices. The suppressor may be useful for hunters who use rounds like the .223, shown beside the suppressor in the bottom photo, for feral-hog control and wildlife-management practices.

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