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At the federal level, silencers are legal to possess. According to the ATF, over 2 million silencers are in civilian hands, and the number rises every year.
However, silencers are highly-regulated items by federal law, and they may be further regulated if not banned by state law.
If you’re looking to buy a silencer, it is critical to know the laws and regulations surrounding them. Learn about silencer laws in the United States and how to fill out silencer registration paperwork.
What Exactly Is A Silencer?
Although the proper technical term is “suppressor,” partly because they do not fully silence a firearm, the legal definition uses the words silencer or, less-commonly, muffler. Both terms may be used interchangeably.
The gun community sometimes colloquially refers to silencers as “cans,” after their cylindrical shape.
Silencers are primarily defined by the first significant federal gun control law in American history: the National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA).
The NFA defines six categories of regulated items as “NFA weapons” or “Title II weapons,” separating them from federally unregulated (Title I) weapons: machine guns, short-barreled rifles (SBR), short-barreled shotguns (SBS), Any Other Weapons (AOW), silencers, and since 1968, Destructive Devices (DD).
The legal definition of a silencer is outlined in 18 U.S.C. § 921 (24): “Any device for silencing, muffling, or diminishing the report of a portable firearm.”
This definition also covers parts and items repurposed to serve as a silencer, such as an oil filter or solvent traps.
Where Are Silencers Legal?
Before going through the lengthy process of purchasing and registering a silencer, you must know whether it is legal for you to possess one.
At the federal level, silencers are legal for US citizens to possess as long as they meet the following criteria:
- Be 21 years old or more.
- Pass a criminal background check and is not a “prohibited person.”
- Pay a one-time transfer tax stamp of $200
- Complete the registration process (varies depending on the method selected)
State and local laws
Your state and your local area may impose additional restrictions on silencer ownership.
- Silencer ownership is prohibited in the following states: California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia.
- Silencers are legal to possess but illegal for hunting in Connecticut and Vermont.
- All other states allow civilians to own silencers with no restrictions other than the federal requirements.
Even if you live in a state where silencers are legal to possess, make sure that your city or county does not prohibit them at the local level.
How Do I Buy a Silencer?
Before all else, it is essential to note that the total length of the process from the moment you’ve decided which silencer model you want and the day you receive it may last several months.
Deciding the right model
The first step to buying a silencer is to select the right model for you.
Determine which firearms you intend to install a silencer on, whether you need it for one gun or multiple, what the calibers of those firearms are, and whether they possess the correct threading or mounting systems.
Don’t hesitate to do as much research as possible; sound suppression capabilities, weight, dimensions, durability, and any other factor you deem essential. Look into whether your firearm needs ancillary accessories, such as suppressor-height sights.
If you’ve purchased your silencer at a local gun store, they will receive it at the end of the process, and they will notify you of its arrival.
If you’ve ordered your silencer online, you must contact one of your local Class 3 dealers and ask them for information regarding NFA item transfers. Most dealers charge transfer fees for the service.
Purchasing the tax stamp
Once you know which silencer you want to buy, the process begins with the NFA tax stamp.
The price of an NFA tax stamp is $200. This price remained fixed since 1934, the year the National Firearms Act was enacted. You can either mail the ATF directly with a check or money order or go through a third party to do it for you.
At the time, $200 was the average cost of a Thompson submachine gun and about half that of a new Ford Model T. If the cost of the tax stamp had scaled with inflation, it would cost approximately $3,900 in 2021.
You must purchase one tax stamp for every silencer you intend to buy.
Registering the silencer
There are three ways to register a silencer: as an individual, as a corporation, or through a trust.
Registering your silencer as an individual is the least expensive option but also one of the least convenient. A silencer registered in your name means that you must be present whenever the silencer is in use. Legally, even family members are not allowed to use your silencer without you being physically present.
If you already have a corporation set up, registering the silencer in your corporation’s name allows any officer within your organization to use it. This option is ideal if you run a business or a venture where you can use suppressed firearms.
However, the main drawback is that the registration is only valid as long as the corporation is in good standing.
If your business is no longer in good standing (e.g., dissolution), all of your registered silencers will need to be transferred or destroyed.
The third and arguably the most advantageous for a typical gun owner is registering your silencer using a gun trust.
Forming a trust typically requires filing paperwork with your state, which may cost anywhere between $25 and $500.
The main advantage of a trust is the ability to register as many Title I and II items as you wish under one name.
You can also add and remove the names of any individuals you wish into the trust at any time. The persons added become trustees, granting them legal access to the listed items.
Submit paperwork to the ATF
After buying the tax stamp and deciding how you wish to register the silencer, you must submit documents to the ATF for verification and approval.
The following documentation is required:
- Fill out an ATF Form 4.
- If you’re registering your silencer under a gun trust or a corporation, fill out an ATF Form 23.
- Get your fingerprints on an FD-258 Fingerprint Card.
- Passport-style photographs.
Once you’ve sent all of the requisite paperwork to the ATF, the only thing left is to wait for it to be processed.
Wait times typically vary between a few months to over a year, depending on the number of applications the ATF has to process at any given time.
If the ATF approves your Form 4, your local dealer will receive your silencer and notify you of its arrival. All that’s left to do is to pick it up and enjoy suppressed shooting.
Although the process is lengthy and convoluted, don’t hesitate to ask for help at your local gun shops. The vast majority of them are willing to assist you throughout the entire process.
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