A controversial bill that would make it easier to purchase gun silencers was approved by a key House committee Wednesday, setting up a possible floor vote in coming weeks.
It would be the most dramatic move to ease gun restrictions since President Donald Trump came into office, although there is little chance the measure will get through the Senate even if the House approves it.
The Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act, introduced by Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), was adopted Wednesday by the Natural Resources Committee on a straight party-line vote.
The Duncan legislation includes language revising federal regulations on the sale of gun silencers, also known as suppressors. Democrats and gun-control groups contend that Duncan’s bill would make it possible to obtain a silencer without going through a background check, although Republicans insist that is not the case.
Another provision would make it more difficult for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to classify certain ammunition as “armor piercing.” Regulations on interstate transportation of weapons would be revised as well.
Duncan noted that 40 states currently allow hunters to use silencers. The devices, which reduce but don’t eliminate gunshot noise, are also popular with target shooters.
“Sportsmen are the foundation of the conservation movement in the United States,” Duncan said in a statement, “yet some radical organizations seek to limit access to this pastime by restricting the Second Amendment, as well as land and game management.”
The Duncan legislation is one of the top priorities of the powerful National Rifle Association, which hailed the House panel’s action.
“Today marks an important step in protecting the Second Amendment freedoms of America’s hunters and sportsmen and strengthening our outdoor heritage,” Chris Cox, executive director of NRA-ILA, the lobbying arm of the gun rights group, said in a statement. “The SHARE Act will cut burdensome red tape that restricts millions of hunters and sportsmen.”
Democrats complained throughout Wednesday’s hearing that Republicans were more interested in doing the NRA’s bidding than working toward a bipartisan deal.
“The National Rifle Association thinks Congress owes them more armor-piercing rounds and gun silencers on the streets, and today our Republican colleagues showed they’re happy to do what they’re told,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee. “I’ve been here since 2003, and passing these bills in the name of ‘helping sportsmen’ is one of the most cynical excuses I’ve ever heard.”
Grijalva complained that Democrats on the panel couldn’t offer amendments to portions of the bill that dealt with silencers and ammunition. These provisions come under the jurisdiction of the Judiciary Committee, and the House parliamentarian’s office ruled that any attempt to change them in the Natural Resources Committee would be out of order.
“There were seven titles in there that were somebody else’s jurisdiction,” Grijalva said. “Part of the problem was that we really couldn’t debate it.”
Democrats on the Judiciary Committee immediately sent a letter to its chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), asking for a hearing on the Duncan bill.
“These proposals would significantly change current law and impact public safety,” said Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas). Conyers is the ranking member on Judiciary, while Jackson Lee is the top Democrat on the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations. “Clearly, the committee, which has received a referral on this bill, must deliberate on these proposals thoroughly.”
GOP staffers on the Judiciary Committee did not respond to a request for comment on whether Goodlatte plans to accommodate the Democratic request.
Under the 1934 National Firearms Act, silencers are treated similarly to machine guns and explosives. The waiting time to purchase one is far longer than for handguns or other weapons — as much as nine months or more — and buyers have to submit fingerprints and a photograph. Federal law enforcement agencies keep a record of silencer purchases. There is also a $200 transfer tax on silencers.
Duncan’s proposal would eliminate those requirements, as well as refund the transfer tax to anyone who has purchased a silencer since October 2015.