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New Outrageous Lie from NRA: Gun Silencers Protect Kids' Hearing

Silencers could give the next Adam Lanza even more time to kill -- but to the NRA, it's got to be protected.

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Society did not form its lasting perceptions of the silencer in the decades of Percy’s .22 pistols and midnight pig poaching. The image the NRA must scrub is the one that formed early in what might be called the Second Silencer Age, when a new breed of steel “cans” emerged and became associated with rapid, discreet, controlled killing. The silencers the gun lobby is trying to mainstream can make ninjas of high-caliber handguns, long-barrel sniper rifles, and assault weapons, all commonly featured in military-themed silencer ads. The Second Age that produced these tools was commenced not by a charming dynastic American industrial engineer with wide interests like Percy Maxim. Rather, it was born in the rural Georgia kill-gadget lab of a notoriously cracked and ruthless CIA black ops contractor, known in gun circles as the Wizard of Whistling Death.

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Mitch WerBell gained his reputation for cold-blooded efficiency during his days with the CIA’s wartime precursor, the OSS. After the war he maintained his ties to the Agency as a man who could be depended on to figure out how make problems go away. His accomplished his revolutionary leap in silencer technology in 1967, during a short break from international intrigue. The previous year, federal agents raided WerBell’s mercenary training camp in Florida, where he was in the final stages of preparing an army of Miami-based Cubans to invade Haiti and oust “Papa Doc”  François Duvalier.

WerBell patented his silencer under the name of his boutique weapons development firm, SIONICS, or Studies In the Operational Negation of Insurgents and Counter-Subversion. WerBell’s silencer was the first to successfully muffle automatic and semi-automatic weapons fire. On some weapons, the silencer also increased accuracy and power. Knowing he had a big breakthrough on his hands, WerBell convinced a group of rich investors that his invention would make them new fortunes, and just maybe win the Cold War for the West along the way. Oddly, the gang of investors included the eccentric and liberal antiwar philanthropist Stewart R. Mott. According to some accounts, WerBell sold Mott by telling him the principles behind the silencer could be adapted to lawn mowers and other devices to reduce suburban noise pollution.

WerBell’s silencer not only decreased the volume of the gun’s report and increased its accuracy; it also reduced the powder flash of machine gun fire, opening up new possibilities for nighttime ambush and assassination missions. WerBell packed his silencer and flew to Indochina, where he wowed American and South Vietnamese brass. Orders from the Pentagon soon followed, and in 1968 WerBell began large-scale production of his silencers under a SIONICS subsidiary he named Environmental Industries, a sarcastic reference to his intended contribution to solving the strains of overpopulation.

The timing of the new silencer’s introduction to Vietnam was just right for business. By 1968, the U.S. had pivoted from away from its early strategy that included an effort to “win hearts and minds,” and had embraced a model of search-and-destroy exemplified by the death squads of the CIA’s Phoenix Program. The M-16s carried by these special units were retrofitted with SIONICS silencers. They soon reported increased lethality and accuracy in ambushes and targeted killings. In his out-of-print 1978 masterpiece, “Spooks,” former Harper’s editor Jim Hougan reports that Green Beret officers singled WerBell’s invention out for praise in Congressional budget hearings.

According to Hougan, WerBell consumed the Army’s official kill counts like a 12-year-old reads box scores. From his compound in Georgia, he relished Pentagon data demonstrating his silencer’s economy and lethality. In the late 1970s, he boasted to Hougan that Army rifles equipped with his silencers helped kill nearly 2,000 Vietcong in the first six months, and reduced the number of bullets per kill to one-point-three rounds, a feat he boasted was “the greatest cost-effectiveness the Army’s ever known.” Whatever the actual numbers, the SIONICS silencer was widely recognized as a huge advance in the science of killing. WerBell emerged from the shadows to become a patriotic cult hero to the fathers of those now agitating for silencer deregulation. In 1972, WerBell played a starring role in David Truby’s admiring study of these new tools and their uses, “Silencers, Snipers, and Assassins: An Overview of Whispering Death.”

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