Senate Bill 2933 – The Great Suppressor Debate

Written by Guest author Kurt Huhnxray

In the wake of a bunch of gun control bills introduced in 2013 and 2014 in Rhode Island that were intended to limit freedom and firearms ownership, there has been a surprising recent development: Senate Bill 2933.

The bill deals with RI General Law section 11-47-20, the prohibition on manufacture or ownership of supressors (silencers). The proposed legislation would amend 11-47-20 with this text:

“(b)The provisions of this section shall not apply to full-time members of the state police, full-time members of city or town police departments, persons licensed under §§ 11-47-9 and 11-47-11, or to sales of air rifles or ‘BB’ guns or to sales of antique firearms as defined in § 11-47-2.”

Supressors are currently completely illegal in RI, and at first this looks like just another allowance for the government to have something that the people cannot. However, if we unravel the legalese and review sections 11-47-9 and 11-47-11, and what/who is actually exempted from the prohibition, this is actually not the entire story.

Section 11-47-9 is a difficult read due to the giant run-on sentence of which it is largely comprised. All of the exemptions are for the government, dealing with wardens, police, sheriffs, fire marshals, armed security for military bases, correctional officers, etc. Most of this appears be on-duty and off, but some of the exemptions appear to be only for on-duty use. This is typical of government exemption to prohibitions, and fairly standard. Confusing nature of the wording aside, this is not a helpful section for the general public. Even the last portion of paragraph (a) doesn’t help, as it refers only to “ordinary transportation of pistols or revolvers”, immediately disqualifying supressors.

Section 11-47-11 is where the interesting exemption is made, specifically in paragraph (a) that deals with city/town licensing of concealed handgun permits. Notable is that they chose to use local permits instead of the Attorney General’s permit. While some localities have proven problematic, local permits are generally considered to be much more accessible to citizens than the AG’s office.

So under this proposed legislation, if you hold a local permit for concealed carry, you would be allowed to own or manufacture (in accordance with federal law) a supressor.

However, there’s bad news: concealed carry permits expire.

If, for any reason, your permit were to expire, and you possessed (erstwhile legally) a supressor, you would be in violation of section 11-47-20. Violation of this section is punishable by imprisonment of “not less than one year and one day”, and as anyone familiar with the background check can tell you, this is an immediate disqualifier for firearms purchase, and almost certainly grounds for confiscation.

There are also reports from all over our state of people who attempt to renew their concealed carry permits, and are being turned down for no apparent reason. Even though it might not be their fault that they no longer have a permit, they could still be punished as above since they will still be in violation.

If we consider why the licensing restriction was used, it’s possible that it was written in to help make the bill seem more palatable to those on the fence about allowing supressors in RI. However, anyone familiar with the process of actually obtaining a supressor can tell you how onerous, expensive, and time consuming it already is. You must fill out the transfer or manufacture paperwork, submit fingerprints, pay the government their $200 tax, undergo a background check, and wait a minimum of 9 months (as of the author date of this posting) for permission from the ATF to possess one. And even then there are some very strong restrictions, like no transport out of state without ATF approval.

The bill does seem to exempt antiques and air rifles, however the problem with this is that RI General Law uses the definition of “antique firearm” from 18 U.S.C. § 921, which lacks absolutely any language regarding supressors. As far as federal law is concerned, a supressor is an entirely separate and distinct item, and the age of one has no bearing on it’s status under law. This clause is a total non-sequitur.

As far as airguns go, the federal law has some complexities that can be very interesting, but also quite complex. While it can be legal to have an airgun with a permanently mounted (as in removal destroys it) silencer, this is only because airguns are not “firearms” under federal law and fall outside regulation by the ATF. However, under RI law, airguns do seem to be considered “firearms” – adding complexity and confusion to already an already complex situation. The legality here is quite fragile, and the practical usefulness dubious at best.

While S2933 seems like a step in the right direction, it has some major problems, and it would be difficult to support this legislation given those problems. If the bill were amended to remove the licensing restriction, it would be a slam dunk for gun owner support, but expect any effort to do that to be strongly opposed by anti-firearm groups.