The shooting in Virginia Beach, in which a disgruntled city employee killed 12 people at a municipal building, is the deadliest mass shooting so far in 2019.
But it is also “ominous” for one other unusual reason, wrote Harvard professor and former Homeland Security official Juliette Kayyem in the Washington Post: the shooter used a suppressor, or as it’s known in common language, a silencer.
“What ends lives? Gunfire. What saves lives? The sound of gunfire,” wrote Kayyem.
“Gun violence in America is unique not simply because of our culture but also because we have lawful weaponry that can kill many people very quickly. In terms of death-to-time ratio, single-shot weapons are preferable to multi-round handguns and handguns are preferable to the semiautomatic, and the favorite of mass shooters, the AR-15. It’s a simple calculation of time,” wrote Kayyem. “But the Virginia Beach killer seemed to want the anonymity of silence, a tool of the coward, not one seeking fame or a blaze of glory. None of the videos or manifestos we’ve seen from New Zealand to Las Vegas appear to be part of the Virginia Beach story. The killer wanted silence.”
Suppressors are currently legal in 42 states, although they are regulated under the National Firearms Act and are thus heavily taxed and expensive to obtain. Gun rights activists have made a considerable push to deregulate them, insisting that they are a safety mechanism that protects the hearing of shooters, that they do not actually ‘silence’ a gun, and that it would be impractical to use one in a mass shooting.
“It is true that suppressors do not quiet guns; industry experts often cringe at the popular reference to ‘silencers,'” wrote Kayyem. “Instead, suppressors act like a car muffler — both devices were pioneered by the same inventor, Hiram Percy Maxim — by cooling and dissipating the gases that emanate from the chamber as the trigger is being pulled. That alters the sound enough that the gunshot’s normal sound — a suppressed gunshot can sound like a chair scraping on the floor — is difficult to identify.”
Kayyem speculates that the use of a suppressor may have added to the Virginia Beach gunman’s body count by confusing victims, who, while they still heard the gunfire, may not immediately have recognized it as gunfire, or else may not have been sure where it was coming from.
“To protect life, time is of the essence,” concluded Kayyem. “And sound adds precious seconds.”