CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Wyoming lawmakers will decide in coming months whether to follow a growing national trend and allow the use of silencers on hunting guns.
Proponents say there's no reason to ban the devices that screw onto the muzzle of a firearm to catch the blast and muffle the sound of a shot. Not only do they prevent hearing damage, supporters say, they also reduce noise pollution.
Some opponents, however, say they believe allowing silencers for hunting would be unsporting and unnecessary. They say hunters increasingly laden with high-tech gadgets don't need yet another advantage when they go up against game species whose defenses always have been only their alertness and ability to run away.
An interim Wyoming legislative committee recently endorsed a bill to end the state's prohibition on hunting with silencers. The full Legislature will consider the issue in the general session starting in January.
Scott Edberg, assistant chief game warden at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said the agency doesn't take a position on the proposal. He said constituents asked several state legislators to roll back the ban.
More than half the states allow silencers and the number is growing, with Texas and Arizona approving their use for hunters earlier this year.
Knox Williams, secretary of the American Silencer Association, a Washington, D.C. industry group, said the organization is pushing to legalize the use of silencers for hunting in Wyoming and Montana this year. He said the group also is pushing to change laws in other states where possession of silencers is still prohibited.
Williams said 39 states allow civilian ownership of silencers. Their sale is regulated by the federal government, which imposes a $200 transfer tax.
Despite their name, there's nothing truly "silent" about silencers, particularly when they're attached to hunting rifles. The escaping blast from the gas that propels a bullet still makes a substantial noise, and there's no way to silence the sonic boom, or loud crack, of the bullet breaking the sound barrier.
Thunder Beast Arms Corporation in Cheyenne manufactures silencers for sale around the country. They range from tubes 1-inch in diameter and less than 5-inches long, for .22 rimfire cartridges up to units nearly twice that diameter and length for centerfire rifles.
Shane Coppinger, one of the owners of Thunder Beast Arms, said he took about a dozen Wyoming lawmakers to a shooting range this summer for a demonstration.
Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, was among the state lawmakers who attended the demonstration and later voted in favor of the bill. She said she enjoys walking in the woods and had been concerned about the prospect of not hearing when someone's shooting nearby.
"I honestly was convinced," Connolly said of the demonstration. "My biggest concern was about a lack of report, but there is a report."
Coppinger and Thunder Beast Arms co-owners Zak Smith and Ray Sanchez demonstrated their silencers for a reporter recently at gun range west of Cheyenne.
With a silencer in place, a .308-caliber centerfire rifle made a sound scarcely louder than the blast that might come out an air hose at a filling station. A .22-caliber rimfire rifle made a barely audible "pffft" sound when shooting subsonic ammunition.
Smith said sees no merit to the argument that silencers are unsporting. With bullets traveling faster than the speed of sound, he said, game animals don't hear the report of the hunter's shot anyway, unless the hunter misses.
Steve Kilpatrick, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, said his group opposes allowing hunting with silencers on ethical grounds.
"We already have a lot of tools, and a lot of them are toys I guess, with GPS units, night vision scopes, high-powered rifles with ballistic scopes that allow you to kill critters at 800 to 1,000 yards, four-wheelers, four-wheel drives, the list is quite long," Kilpatrick said. "And we don't really see the need for silencers, especially for the hunting of game animals."
Kim Floyd, spokesman for the Wyoming Federal of Union Sportsmen, said his group also opposes the prospect of allowing silencers for hunting, calling it "a poacher's dream." He said any hunters truly concerned about the effect on their hearing from shooting at game can carry ear plugs.
Floyd questioned why Wyoming would want to allow silencer use. "I want to know who's in that drainage with me," he said. "If they're shooting a gun, I want to hear that gun. I want to know where these other hunters are. It just absolutely makes no sense to us. Why we would open that can of worms? I don't care how many other states have this law in effect, it's just a really, really bad law for Wyoming."
Coppinger dismissed concerns that silencers could encourage poaching. He said clearing the federal background check to buy a silencer can take months while silencers themselves can cost up to thousands of dollars. He said no one's likely to go through the trouble and expense of buying one only to turn around and use it to commit a crime.
"They're gun guys," Coppinger said of the people who buy silencers. "You get caught poaching, and you don't own a gun anymore."