How the ATF Slashed Suppressor Approval Time by 5000%

How the ATF Slashed Suppressor Approval Time by 5000%

Purchasing a suppressor has historically been one of the most frustrating experiences for gun owners. The paperwork is onerous, but the wait time is what really gets you. No one wants to drop $1,000 on something (plus a $200 “tax”) just to wait a year or more to bring it home.

Those days appear to be over, thanks, shockingly, to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). The much-maligned agency has made a few key tweaks to how they process suppressor applications, and since then, wait times have dropped dramatically.

How much? According to the industry experts I spoke with, average wait times used to be in excess of 200 days for an individual Form 4 filed electronically. Many applicants (myself included) had to wait over a year to be approved.

Now, Silencer Central and Silencer Shop, two of the biggest suppressor dealers in the country, are reporting an average wait time of about four days for the same application. Some applicants are walking home with their suppressor on the same day.

“We’ve been working on this for 13 years to try to get ATF to actually process their stuff quickly, and finally, it worked… It’s a massive step in the right direction, and, frankly, the folks at the ATF deserve a lot of credit,” Knox Williams, the president of the American Suppressor Association, told MeatEater.

A Bureaucratic Miracle

The ATF didn’t receive an influx of cash to process suppressor applications more quickly. They didn’t hire an army of new approvers, and Congress didn’t pass any new laws to force their hand. They introduced a revamped electronic filing system, but that was all the way back in 2022, and wait times were actually longer in the months that followed.

And yet, somehow, this giant federal agency increased their efficiency by 50x, seemingly overnight. Suppressor dealers began seeing faster approval times back in March, and even despite the growing demand for gun mufflers, those approval times haven’t slowed down.

“We used to get 400-500 approvals a day,” Silencer Central CEO Brandon Maddox told MeatEater. “Then it was 2,000. And we were like, ‘Wow, what happened? Maybe someone worked overtime.’ Then it was 3,000. Then 4,000, and we’re like, ‘What’s going on?’ Now, it’s steadily maintained, and they’re burning through their backlog and staying on top of them.”

Both Maddox and Williams pointed to key personnel changes at the ATF to explain this bureaucratic miracle. First, Williams stressed how important it was to install a politically appointed, Senate-confirmed director at the agency. The ATF was run by a series of acting directors from 2015 to 2022, which made it nearly impossible to institute any kind of real reforms.

“When a federal agency doesn't have a political appointee at the head, there’s nowhere that the buck stops. They’re all running around, afraid of their own shadows, afraid of making decisions, afraid of rocking the boat, so nothing gets done,” Williams explained.

The U.S. Senate confirmed Steve Dettelbach as ATF Director in 2022, but that wasn’t enough to speed up the suppressor approval process. Dettelbach is “not a friend to the gun world,” Williams said, but his position allowed the Congress and lobbying groups like the American Suppressor Association to bring real political pressure to bear.

Specifically, Williams pointed to a 2023 hearing before the House Appropriations Commerce, Justice, and Science Committee, which controls the ATF’s budget.

“They did a fantastic job of raking Dettelbach over the coals,” Williams said. “They said, ‘This committee has allocated $20 million to the E-forms system. Why isn’t it working? You better get it right.’ That’s what you can do when you have a political appointee–you can apply political pressure. That pressure was applied.”

The second personnel change took place in January of 2024. The former chief of the National Firearms Act (NFA) Division stepped down and was replaced with a guy named Ben Hiller. According to Maddox, Hiller started the job by working through 100 Form 4 applications and looking for ways to speed up the process.

“He determined that 80% of the work they were doing didn’t need to be done,” Maddox said.

All Form 4’s (the application to possess a suppressor) have to be approved by a real person at the ATF, but the agency’s E-forms system allows the computer to verify much of that information. What Williams describes as the “old guard” at the NFA division insisted on approving Form 4’s as if they were still checking paper applications. But Hiller quickly realized that was a waste of time.

Those process tweaks, however, weren’t the biggest reason for the change. Historically, the ATF has approved suppressor applications as they arrive–what Williams called a “first in, first out” system. This sounds fair, but it means that a delay for someone at the front of the line halts the process for everyone behind them.

Usually, this delay occurs at another federal agency, the FBI. When the ATF receives a Form 4, they request a background check from the FBI via their National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). This is the same check that takes place during a gun sale, which usually happens instantaneously. But sometimes that check is delayed–whether because the applicant has the same name as a felon, has incorrectly filled out the paperwork, or has actually committed a crime that makes them a prohibited person.

Under the old regime, that delay resulted in everyone behind that applicant also being delayed. Now, the ATF allows those people who are instantaneously approved by the FBI to move forward in line. Since 70% of those checks come back clean within minutes, those Form 4’s can be approved within just a few days.

Williams calls this “the one single change they made internally that had the biggest impact.”

“They were just sitting on thousands of applications that have an approved NICS check, saying, ‘We’re going to wait because we still have people in front of them in line that haven’t gotten approval back from NICS.’ It’s so basic and simple, but that was one of the root causes for delays,” he said.

Maddox compared the new system to when an employee at a drive-through restaurant asks you to wait off to the side while your food is being prepared. That way, they can serve all the people in line behind you without forcing them to wait. In those terms, the ATF went from a McDonald’s drive-through to a Chick-fil-A–definitely a step in the right direction.

Will It Last?

I asked both Williams and Maddox whether these wait times are the new normal or a miraculous blip on the radar. They both think that if wait times start to creep up again, the ATF will have a tough time justifying themselves to Congress.

“They’ve been able to advance their ability to approve forms so radically without any additional budget money. How do you walk that back? I can see them needing more people as demand goes up. But I think this is the new norm for them,” Maddox said.

The agency is currently churning through 65,000 to 80,000 suppressor applications per month, which is two to three times more per month than last year. Williams thinks they have the capacity to do even more, but the suppressor supply currently can’t keep up with demand.

Ultimately, Williams would like to see same-day suppressor approvals become a reality for most potential purchasers.

“A week is still way too long. We’re not going to stop until you can walk in, buy it, and walk out,” he said.

The Hearing Protection Act, which would make purchasing a suppressor as easy as purchasing a firearm, would accomplish that goal. But Williams doesn’t see a path forward for that legislation in the near future. However, depending on the outcome of this year’s presidential election, he does believe there are regulatory changes that can be made that would make over-the-counter suppressor transfers a reality.

That dream is still a long way off, but now’s not so bad, either. In fact, there’s never been a better time to pull the trigger on a suppressor. But you’ll want to hurry–Maddox reports that demand this year has increased by 100%, and even though Silencer Central has a good supply, many manufacturers are struggling to keep up.

Still, even if you have to put your new can on backorder, your wait time will almost certainly be shorter than in June of last year. And at a time when Americans’ trust in institutions has never been lower, and the ATF is attacking gun rights on other fronts, it’s nice to see a positive development for law-abiding gun owners.

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