Time consuming? Yes. Arbitrary? Can be. Annoying? No doubt. But impossible, hardly, and not unfair enough that the “price of admission” should scare away any law abiding citizen from exercising their Constitutional rights as loudly or softly as they want. Civvie suppressors are more than just useful tools for hunters and shooters, they can be a statement about your support of the Second Amendment, and if you live in a state where suppressor ownership is legal (and you can legally own a firearm), you can buy a suppressor. Now let’s see (with a little help from our friends at SilencerCo), what can be said about the process…
A suppressor, also called a silencer or a “can,” is a device placed over the muzzle of a firearm that slows and cools the expanding gases propelling the bullet out the end of the barrel, which is from where the boom originates. They are “National Firearms Act” (NFA) items, the same category as machine guns, but handled differently: you don’t need to worry about the initial registration (the manufacturer does that for you), but you do need to apply for the item to be transferred to you and maintain the supporting paperwork with up to date information (like your address). As a rule, anytime this or any other silencer transfers from one party to another, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives needs to get a form requesting the transfer and approve it.
On a federal level, the process requires that you submit some paperwork, go through a background check and pay a $200 tax (you do not need an FFL or Class III). Some state and local governments however prohibit suppressor ownership entirely so check your local laws before proceeding.
Currently, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and the District of Columbia all prohibit civilian possession of suppressors. Likewise, “surprises” can occur when seeking the signature of a Chief Law Enforcement Officer (CLEO), so make sure to survey and account for local attitudes towards suppressor ownership while forming your game plan.
Because of the guaranteed time investment, the first and most important step to suppressor ownership is deciding on the right can (and readying the right gun). Rectifying a mistake made here may mean repeating the entire process, so chose wisely. Though your chances to field test suppressors may be dependent on the kindness of strangers, suppressor enthusiasts tend to agree that most modern makes do the job, so go with a trusted name and concentrate more on getting the mounting options, weight and length right.
These days, most AR-style rifles come pre-threaded under removable flash hiders but a lot of rifles will require some aftermarket surgery to take a suppressor. Some rifle barrels may even be too thin to accept the proper threading and require a barrel swap if a suppressor is to be attached. Tilting barrel design handguns require silencers with a “booster” feature for the semi-auto action to cycle properly — usually a spring loaded section on the device that allows the barrel to fully recoil without the extra weight of the silencer.
Suppressors are designed for specific calibers. Firing higher caliber ammunition through a suppressor is unsafe, but going lighter in charge and smaller in bore is okay. For example the Saker 762 is compatible with both 5.56 and 7.62 ammunition, but due to the difference in the diameter of the projectile the device won’t be quite as effective at muffling .223 as the Saker 556.
After selecting your suppressor, contact the seller (or sellers if you want quotes) and pay for the item via check, money order or card.
There are three ways to register a suppressor with the ATF: through a trust, through a corporation or individually. Though individual registration is considered the standard, most suppressor heads agree that, as it stands right now, the trust option offers the most benefits for the average shooter. These include the use of the ATF’s new online registration system and forgoing the need for a CLEO signature or fingerprints with your application (though this last part has come under attack as recently as last year). It also allows all trustees listed on the document to possess the suppressor, some trusts can be changed at any time without notifying the ATF and, once one is created, the same trust can be used to purchase other regulated devices (like a second suppressor or an SBR).
Corporate registration exists along the same lines as trusts but with the added stipulation that the business entity stay in “good standing.” Do-it-yourself trusts typically only take a few minutes to set it up and cost about $130, though many opt to have a lawyer (at lawyer prices) set this up for piece of mind.
If you prefer to have the silencer registered in your name (and your name only), get ready for…
Once payment has been received, the seller will begin the task of getting all of your application papers in order to send off to you. This is the first bit of paperwork in the process and it can linger because of two things: first, the type of FFL the seller has and, second, if the seller has to acquire the specific suppressor you chose through a distributor.
Though all FFLs can transfer suppressors to civilians, FFLs with a Special Occupational Tax (SOT) can do so easier, so the fast track to individual ownership lies with these types of dealers (just ask). But also be aware that every time a silencer changes hands, the ATF needs a form documenting it, regardless of whether both parties have FFLs with SOTs. The wait on this form is much shorter than the wait on your ATF packet, but the wheels of bureaucracy can grind slow.
All of these forms are downloadable, but you will still have to get specific information (like the seller’s legal name and address, the model of the silencer, the caliber, the overall length, the serial number and the manufacturer’s information) as well as signatures from your dealer, so most folks let the seller handle this step as all this information will arrive pre-filled on the paperwork.
Fill out the Form 4 according to the enclosed instructions in duplicate (the seller often provides a copy, but be sure you fill out two double sided forms, read, don’t just make a photocopy of one) and affix a recent color passport-sized photograph of yourself on the back of each. Also fill out the ATF Form 5330.20, known as a “Certification of Compliance.” Essentially this form states that you certify that they you are a nonimmigrant alien.
Finally you will need two sets of fingerprints and, for individuals, the the best way to get these is to set up…
A visit to your local Law Enforcement Agency
Before you send off your registration packet to the ATF, you’ll need the CLEO in your city or county (often the police chief or local sheriff) to sign both copies of Form 4. Contact your local administrative police line for more information on who this person is and what to do, as the process and locations will vary locally.
Signing these forms should be a routine part of your CLEO’s job, so don’t feel intimidated, but if you feel that your CLEO will not sign your forms because of personal or political reasons, you can sidestep this part entirely by setting up a trust.
This visit with law enforcement will also give you the opportunity to get fingerprinted, usually digital process these days. Just politely ask an officer for assistance and remind them that you need two copies on 10-print cards (which can be downloaded here).
Before sending in a single envelope, double check everything. If you are missing something, it may take the ATF months to get around to telling you about it. It may be a good idea also to photocopy your forms for your own files or, at the very least, write down your silencer’s serial number, which will allow you to track your application’s progress once it is sent. It’s also suggested that you use a check instead of a money order so you can see when the ATF cashes it and confirm that the forms have arrived and are being processed.
Send it all to the address listed on Form 4:
National Firearms Act Branch, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, P.O. Box 530298, Atlanta, Georgia 30353-0298
It will take about six months before you get these forms back from the ATF (check out other folks wait times here to get an idea for your state), but you can check on the progress of your application by calling the agency’s NFA branch (304-616-4500). You will need to provide an agent with the serial number of the suppressor, your name and the name of the seller transferring you the silencer. Pending (usually associated with a date) means that all of your paperwork is in line and being reviewed and approved means they are in the process of issuing your stamp. If your status is problem ask the operator how to fix the issue.
After the ATF approves Form 4, they will stamp one of the two copies you sent them and then send it back to the seller who will then notify you that the paperwork has returned and that your silencer is ready to pick up, right after you sign Form 4473 (the same paper you would fill out for a gun sale only without a NICS check).
Then, it’s congratulations! You’re a suppressor owner. Now go make about a dozen copies of the forms and get to the joys of sending lead downrange at 2,000+ fps with a report just above a whisper. Chances are it won’t be too long before you’re back asking about NFA trusts…
Wow. That was a lot of information. We hope that this little walkthrough took some of the mystique out of what could and should be the simple and routine process to purchasing a suppressor in these United States. But don’t stop here. There is still worlds of suppressor knowledge to acquire , namely the hands-on kind, and a great place to get started on this part of the journey is right here…