Administration’s Lifting of Ban on Silencer Sales Shines Light on Trump Adviser Who Used to Work for Gun Lobby

On Friday, the Trump administration overturned a ban on the sale of silencers and suppressors to non-government foreign entities. The change is yet another indication of the sway that industry lobbyists have on President Donald Trump’s decisions, and a potential sign of the influence of one White House adviser in particular — Michael Williams, who used to work for the suppressor industry.

Williams entered the administration in January 2017 as an official in the Office of Management and Budget, and was named deputy assistant to the president in April 2019. Prior to joining the Trump campaign in 2016, Williams had worked for the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the American Suppressor Association, where his brother, Knox Williams, is now the president and executive director. Records obtained by American Oversight, reported on by the New York Times in its Monday story on the suppressor rule change, show Michael Williams being invited to meet with gun lobbyists just after the Parkland school shooting, and prior reporting by Vice indicated that the two brothers were also in close contact about gun issues.

The rule preventing sales of suppressors to foreign non-government entities had been created to help prevent terrorist or organized crime groups from obtaining such equipment to kill U.S. troops. The American Suppressor Association lobbies against regulations on silencers, and Williams worked as the organization’s top lawyer for two years before making his way to the Trump campaign.

According to the calendar records American Oversight got through a Freedom of Information Act request, Williams was invited to participate in calls with a number of gun industry representatives soon after the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 dead, including 14 students, and ignited a student-led movement for gun control.

According to the New York Times, Lawrence Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), one of the groups on the calls, said Williams had not attended the meetings and had been invited in error, but that his group had communicated with Williams about the State Department’s silencer policy and other Second Amendment-related issues. 

The calls, which took place on Feb. 27, March 2, and March 8, include a number of industry organizations, such as NSSF, Vista Outdoor, gun manufacturer Sig Sauer, and various lobbying firms. An agenda for the March 8 call mentions various states (including Florida) and the “Fix NICS” bill (NICS refers to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System).

At various points in Trump’s presidency, including after the Parkland shooting, and after the August 2019 shootings in El Paso and Dayton, observers have speculated that the administration might take action on gun control, such as stronger background checks, for which there has been long-standing bipartisan support.

But Trump never moved forward with any gun control reforms, caving time and again to the demands of the gun industry and its powerful lobby. His professions of “draining the swamp” have long been exposed as a campaign ruse. Last week’s New York Times story on the lobbyists running his re-election campaign provides yet another example. As Michael LaForgia and Kenneth Vogel wrote on Monday in the Times, Williams’ role in pushing to overturn the silencer ban “follows a well-established pattern in the Trump administration, with the president handing over policymaking to allies of special interest groups with a stake in those policies.”

“It is exceedingly difficult to square this rule change with America’s national interest,” said Austin Evers, American Oversight’s executive director. “Ensuring the United States can operate as a middleman for gun manufacturers to get silencers into the hands of foreign armed groups is the kind of action that can only be explained by the extraordinary level of access and control special interests have in this administration.”

American Oversight has been examining the influence of the gun industry and other lobbying groups across the administration. Track all of our investigations into influence and access here.

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