Minnesota legislators Thursday weighed the perceived virtues and dangers of reversing the state’s ban on firearm silencers.

Also called “suppression devices,” the metal tubes that enable guns to fire more quietly are one step closer to becoming legal after the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee voted Thursday evening to pass a measure legalizing them.

It heads next to the House floor for a vote, but it’s uncertain whether gun-related legislation will gain traction in the Senate, while Gov. Mark Dayton said he has no interest in changing the state’s existing gun laws.

The committee also cleared measures allowing permit holders to carry guns on State Capitol grounds without first notifying the state Department of Public Safety and easing the purchase of guns in other states.

Advocates say “silencer” is a misnomer because, contrary to movie scenes in which they render a gunshot silent, in real life the devices reduce the noise level of a gunshot by about only 30 decibels — still leaving it eight times louder than a jackhammer.

Advocates say firearm suppressors are a health benefit, protecting the hearing for not only hunters and neighbors who live near shooting ranges, but also for firearms instructors and their students, for whom communicating and the ability to hear is paramount to safety.

Andrew Rothman, president of the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, one of the organizations leading the charge to reverse the ban, said Minnesota would join 39 other states that now allow suppression devices. Even if they were legal, he said, potential buyers would still have to undergo extensive background checks to get approval from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“Unbelievably, this device is treated as a deadly firearm by the federal government and is tightly regulated by the federal government,” Rothman said. “I imagine this could be deadly if you hit someone with it hard enough, but it’s not really dangerous. It’s an accessory.”

Advocates square off

But gun control advocates, who packed the committee hearing along with gun rights advocates, were skeptical. Heather Martens, executive director of Protect Minnesota, a gun safety and anti-gun violence organization, contended that the devices have no health benefits.

“Silencers are not designed for hearing protection. Silencers are designed to allow people to commit murder and get away with it,” she said in a statement that drew laughter from gun rights advocates, causing committee chair Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, to call for order. “One of the concerns we have is if someone commits a mass shooting and has a silencer, they can claim more victims. We would like to prevent tragedies, not react to them.”

“If you think this is about hunting, I happened to look up the ads from the silencer companies,” said Protect Minnesota member Joan Peterson as she held up a photo of a burly, unsmiling bearded man holding what appears to be a military-style firearm. “If you think this … looks like a hunter needing a suppressor, then I ask you to consider what you’re doing here today.”

In a rebuttal, Rothman called Protect Minnesota’s claims offensive, and countered with vintage silencer advertisements that marketed them for avoiding “disturbance” and “flinching.”

The measures received enthusiastic support from some committee members, including Cornish, who sported a camouflage suit-and-tie combo complete with an assault rifle pin on his lapel, and referred to the hearing as “Fun Day/Gun Day,” and Rep. Duane Quam, R-Byron, who repeatedly questioned claims that suppressors rendered firearms dangerous if they still remain so loud.

Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, said she traveled to a police department to shoot with and without a suppressor. It reduced the sound, she said, “but not dramatically.”

Police views mixed

Law enforcement has taken differing stances as well. The Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association say suppressors could interfere with ShotSpotter technology, which is activated by the sound of gunfire and helps police track down the locations of shootings. They’re also concerned about thieves and the devices falling into the wrong hands.

Jim Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association, said the group’s membership is split on the issue and hasn’t taken an official stance.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Lake Shore, a duck hunter and sportsman, said that if suppressors were legal, he’d use one on his shotgun for duck hunting.

“If there’s days I’m standing out there with my waders on and I just make one shot, and as soon as I make that one shot, my ears are ringing every single time,” he said. “If I happen to be having a good morning where I take a few shots at some ducks, every time I do that, my ears ring a little bit more. It’s that first shot, and if I could suppress that even just a little bit, it would help.”