Gun killings in America like the Las Vegas massacre could happen in silence if the US Congress gets its way. A bill to ease regulations on the purchase of gun silencers is gaining momentum even as the country reels from the horror of the deadliest killings in modern US history.
In fact the bill, known as the Protection of Hearing Act, was close to becoming law in June but was put to one side after another shooting outside Washington in which a congressman, Steve Scalise, was seriously injured after a gunman opened fire at a congressional baseball practice.
The Hearing Protection Act has now been included in the Sportsmen Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act (SHARE Act).
Silencers reduce the noise from firearms and under current law they are regulated like machine guns and short-barreled rifles.
But the gun lobby, led by the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA), contends these regulations are costly and unnecessary and that it’s more important to protect gun owners against potential hearing loss.
Others see it as a deadly threat to public safety. In recent testimony before Congress, David Chipman, a former special agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, the federal law-enforcement agency that protects communities from violent criminals, slammed the legislation.
“Congress is promoting a bill that would make a [shooting] potentially even more dangerous by putting silencers in the hands of criminals, and making it difficult for people — including law-enforcement officers — to identify the sound of gunshots and locate an active shooter,” Chipman told lawmakers.
A number of city police chiefs have also signed a letter of opposition to the legislation.
Opposition has also come from a man who believes he would not still be alive if guns had had silencers during the Virginia Tech shooting a decade ago that killed 33 people.
“Simply put, for me, hearing the sound of gunshots meant the difference between life and death,” says Jeff Twigg. “They were so loud and distinctive that my classmates and I knew to take action immediately.
“Law-enforcement officers rely on the sound of gunfire, too. Police and first responders are expected to hear, locate, and react quickly to gunshots. As a survivor of the Virginia Tech shooting, I know that gun lobby-backed legislation being pushed through Congress could make mass shootings even more deadly.”
His words may be falling on deaf ears. The House of Representatives had been expected to vote on the bill as early as this week, although so far it’s not listed on the official schedule and if it was delayed in June that could happen again.
The House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi says Republicans have the votes to pass it but it could ultimately be blocked in the Senate.
If passed, the legislation would be the most comprehensive pro-gun bill that Congress has approved since President Donald Trump took office in January.
Gun-control advocates assert the NRA is already seeing what they call a “return on its $30m investment” in the election in which it favoured Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
There is evidence to support this. Just a month after his election, Trump signed a bill into law loosening restrictions on the sale of firearms to people with mental illness that had been introduced by his predecessor, Barack Obama.
Republicans in Congress have also introduced legislation that would mean people allowed to carry weapons without permits or training in their own state could also carry their weapons into any other state, a move that would undermine gun-control regulations in states like California and New York.
The House is set to move forward on that bill before the end of the year.
But while the latest legislation is driven by Republicans, Democrats for their part remain wary of defying the NRA’s agenda, knowing they can lose their jobs if they do so.
That’s what happened two decades ago when they backed president Bill Clinton’s assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004.
As well as destroying careers, the NRA can also help to make them. Figures from the Federal Election Commission show that since 1998 the NRA has donated almost $3.8m to members of Congress who are currently in office.
A total of 49 of 100 senators have accepted donations and 258 of the 435 members of the House Representatives have also done so. While the average individual amounts may not seem that high, it should be remembered that the organisation’s support also comes in other ways.
The NRA has its own political action committee which spent $27m fighting opponents in the 2014-midterm elections, according to the Centre for Responsive Politics. In last year’s presidential election, it spent $30m.
Meantime, the statistics of unending heartbreak continue to mount.
The most terrifying one may be the fact that more Americans have died from gunfire in their own country in the last half-century than died in all the wars the US has ever fought.
From the period of the American War of Independence in 1776 to 2014, 1.2m Americans have died in military conflicts, according to the Congressional Research Service, while the number of firearm fatalities since 1963 is higher than 1.5m.