By Guy Page and Kate Bowen
“We don’t have enough information, let’s not vote on this now” is not an argument that succeeds often in this progressive, change-oriented Vermont Legislature, at least not when raised by people concerned about loss of gun rights. However, it worked for the GunSense Vermont members worried about allowing noise suppressors to be used by hunters.
The House of Representatives yesterday was set to vote on attach an amendment allowing noise suppressors on hunting firearms to prevent hearing loss when Progressive Brian Cina of Burlington asked that the bill be moved instead to the House Judiciary Committee – a committee famously unfriendly to gun rights and accommodating hunters. The full House agreed, on largely party lines. It remains to be seen if H281 will emerge from House Judiciary with the suppressor language intact – but GunSense certainly hopes that will not be the case.
“GunSense Vermont believes that enough questions have been raised regarding silencers to necessitate a full hearing in the next biennium,” GunSense Executive Director Conor Casey wrote to House Judiciary in a letter dated May 5. “Passing firearm policy via a floor amendment sets a bad precedent. These are life and death issues and policies related to firearms often have unseen and potentially devastating consequences in terms of gun violence. Upon learning of the amendments to S.281, we have received numerous questions from members across the state – questions we currently don’t have enough information to answer. The concerns surrounding suppressors outside of gun ranges should be addressed comprehensively and we fail to see the urgency in rushing this legislation through over the last few days of the session.”
A bill to allow hunters to use noise suppressors – AKA ‘silencers’ – had been folded into the coyote hunting bill. The information below is republished with minor edits from yesterday’s Vermont Daily Chronicle.
S281 would severely restrict the use of dogs for hunting coyotes. Last week, a Colchester Republican and the Democrat from Underhill both introduced amendments on the House floor to include in S281 the language of H5, a bill allowing hunters to use suppressors.
H5, ‘hearing protection while hunting,’ was introduced last January by Rep. Dr. George Till (D-Underhill). At present, noise suppressors are limited mostly to firing ranges. The bill explicitly states that the devices may be used while hunting. It was quickly championed by Colchester Republican Pat Brennan, who suffers from tinnitus and hearing loss, an avocational hazard for avid outdoorsmen like him.
On Tuesday April 26 bill H5 was discussed by the House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish, and Wildlife. A long time hunter, Rep. Patrick Brennan shared a lengthy testimony including his personal story of hearing problems due to exposure to the high decibel noise from turkey and deer hunting.
While it’s common to see ear protection at the shooting range, it’s less likely to be seen in the woods. Hunting with ear protection poses an unrealistic challenge because a successful hunt demands sportsmen have the ability to hear every leaf crunching, or fluctuation in birdsongs, both providing valuable information for the task at hand.
Vermont is currently one of only ten states in the US that does not allow permitted suppressor use for hunting. Our state holds this ranking along with notoriously anti-Second Amendment states like California, New York, and Massachusetts.
America’s history with suppressors is complex and contaminated with heavy federal government overreach. Like many other rural legislatures, those unfamiliar with firearms have had a seat at the table shaping policy. While this device was invented by the same gentlemen who developed the car muffler, suppressors’ reputation became tainted by Hollywood’s misrepresentation of them as an accessory of criminals. In reality, the device that was patented as a “Silencer” in 1916, reduces noise, but doesn’t come close to silencing it.
This misconception was what led some Vermont Fish and Game wardens to initially express concern in 2015 when a bill passed legalizing ownership and use of permitted suppressors at Vermont’s sport shooting ranges. According to Rep. Brennan their concerns were quickly alleviated after he took them to a nearby range for some hands-on demonstrations. “Their biggest concern was poaching…a poacher is bad actor and he’s probably going to do that with a cross-bow or a light caliber weapon. Poaching is way down here in Vermont and we’ve had a successful program combatting that.”
Obtaining permitting for suppressors is currently immensely challenging due to cost, exceptionally slow bureaucratic process, and disclosure of large amounts of personal information. Rep. Patrick Brennan shared his experience “You can’t walk into a store and buy one…to go through the federal process, which is what it requires…I had it shipped to Williston where it sat for two years.” H.5 does not address any of these hardships.
Chair Representative Amy Sheldon said during hearings, “I did a fair amount of reaching out and talking to different people and interestingly, I would say the overall response to this was ambivalence.” Unlike other recent controversial trapping bills, there’s a unique window for sportsmen to have their voices heard and wishes addressed.
As Vermonters raise concerns over proactive health care solutions and complaints about firearm noise become more common, permitting suppressors for hunting could be a small, but positive help in reducing hearing loss and mitigating community disharmony, supporters say.