TURNER, Maine — Chris Jordan rotated his safety switch to semiautomatic, aimed, and squeezed the trigger.
In his hands, the German-made submachine gun twitched as it fired a 9-mm bullet at a speed of more than 1,000 feet per second. The round had sunk safely into the sand of a nearby gravel pit wall when its sound arrived.
It resembled a sneeze.
“You don’t get the dangerous, thunderous report with this thing,” said Jordan, CEO and owner of G3 Firearms in Turner. On the far end of the barrel, a black metal cylinder seemed to make all the difference.
A moment later, Jordan slid the switch to automatic, allowing a single tug of the trigger to send a hail of bullets against the loose gravel wall.
It’s that sound, or lack of it, that’s creating a sudden boom in local silencer sales.
In the 76 years between 1934, when the federal government began registering all silencer sales, and December 2010, when the most recent numbers are available, a total of 1,135 silencers were legally sold in Maine, according to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Those numbers may be deceiving.
Cities such as Lewiston and Auburn have logged few sales, said police chiefs in both cities. Federal rules call for each registration to be accompanied by a criminal background check, fingerprints, a $200 tax payment and the signature of the local law enforcement head.
Registration requests arrive at a rate of two or three each year, Lewiston police Chief Mike Bussiere and Auburn Chief Phil Crowell agreed. In Franklin County, Sheriff Dennis Pike said he has signed off on one silencer in his long career.
However, since 2007, Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins has signed off on 59.
In 2007, his first year in office, requests from places including Turner, Greene and Durham totaled 4. In 2011, there were 20 registrations for silencers.
“I have no idea why they would want them,” Desjardins said. After all, Maine law bans their use in hunting, he said. “Unless they’re target shooting, who knows?”
But Jamie Pelletier, who manages J.T. Reid’s Gun Shop in Auburn, said people often drop by looking for silencers.
“People are running out of places they can shoot without bothering their neighbors,” Pelletier said. He can’t sell silencers, known in gun circles as “cans,” because his shop doesn’t have the needed Class 3 tax status. But he listens and sympathizes.
“Everything is becoming so urbanized,” he said. The days when large numbers of Mainers could target shoot in their backyards are waning, he said. People are living more closely together and the sound frightens people.
To Jordan, one of about a dozen Class 3 dealers in Maine, silencers are a growing niche.
Part of his work is education, he said. People think of silencers as devices used exclusively by movie assassins, screwed onto the ends of handguns by men wearing black gloves.
“About 30 to 40 percent of the people who come in here think they’re illegal,” Jordan said. “Maybe more.”
Even some law enforcement officials think they’re banned.
Jordan said he was once threatened by a coastal town’s police chief, who insisted that silencers could not be sold lawfully.
I said, ‘Look. I’m a licensed dealer in the state of Maine,” Jordan said. “You can’t take my silencers away from me.”
“He said, ‘You come to my town and I’m going to arrest you,'” Jordan said. “I said, ‘I’m going to win. They’re legal.'”
His most popular silencer screws onto the end of a .22-caliber rifle, a target gun.
Silencers can range from just under $300 for a small suppressor that attaches to a .22-caliber gun to $600 or more for a machine-gun silencer.
After the purchase, the application is mailed and each accessory goes under lock and key.
The ATF portion of the process often takes as long as six months to clear, Jordan said.
Federal regulations spelled out in the 1934 National Firearms Act made it difficult to buy the silencers, requiring the same background checks as short-barreled rifles and shotguns, machine guns and fringe weapons classified by a catch-all “any other weapons” category. Felons are prohibited from owning silencers. And the required $200 tax is the same $200 that was levied when Franklin Roosevelt was president.
Desjardins personally performs each background check that crosses his desk.
“I could give it to one of my detectives, but they’ve got too much work,” he said. The background checking can take two hours if the applicant has moved a lot. “If somebody has been convicted of a violent crime or I have worries about it, I don’t have to sign it.”
He has never denied an applicant, he said.
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