County sees nearly 44% increase in firearms registration

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Guns are displayed for sale March 26, 2020, at Stuebs’ Guns and Ammo in Hilo.

  • FERREIRA

  • CONNORS

The state attorney general’s office on Wednesday released statistics showing a dramatic increase in firearms registration in 2020, the same day federal appeals judges affirmed the state’s strict limit on openly carrying firearms.

The attorney general’s annual report on state and county firearm registration statistics showed sizable increases in personal and private firearm permit applications processed in all four counties.

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A record high total of 26,122 personal and private firearm permit applications were processed statewide during 2020, a 62.3% increase from 16,098 applications processed in 2019. Of the applications processed in 2020, 95.8% were approved and resulted in issued permits; 1.4% were approved but subsequently voided after the applicants failed to return for their permits within the specified time period. In addition, a record high proportion of 2.8% were denied due to disqualifying factors.

In Hawaii County, there were 5,347 applications processed last year, a 43.7% increase from the 3,013 applications processed in 2019. Of the applications processed in 2020 on the Big Island, 5,004, or 93.6%, were approved and resulted in the issued permits. Nine, or 0.17%, were approved or subsequently voided after the applicants failed to return for their permits within the specified time limit. And 334 applications, or 6.3%, were denied due to disqualifying factors.

According to the study, the Big Island’s denial rate for 2020 “was the highest on record among the state and all individual counties.”

In a Tribune-Herald story published March 30, 2020 — early in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — two Hilo store owners who sell firearms noted a spike in demand for guns and ammunition.

“It’s been up for awhile; I wouldn’t say just during the pandemic,” said Hawaii Police Chief Paul Ferreira on Wednesday.

The report echoed Ferreira’s long-term assessment.

“The number of permits processed annually in Hawaii County during the 2000-2020 period surged 366%, the number of firearms annually registered increased 281.5%, and the number of firearms annually imported leaped 322%,” the report stated.

Statewide, according to the report, 26,708 firearms, slightly less than half of the 53,481 firearms registered in Hawaii in 2020, were imported from out of state, with the balance accounted for by transfers of firearms that were previously registered in Hawaii.

On the Big Island, 5,240 of the 11,075 firearms registered, or 47.3%, were imported from outside the state.

Almost a year ago, Sean Stueber, co-owner of Stuebs’ Guns and Ammo in Hilo, told the Tribune-Herald an early pandemic spike in demand for guns and ammo reminded him of “2012, right after Sandy Hook” — a reference to the elementary school mass shooting in Connecticut that triggered fears of a broad firearms ban.

A mere two days after a mass shooting in a Boulder, Colo., supermarket killed 10 people, including a responding police officer, and slightly more than a week after mass shootings at three Atlanta-area massage parlors or spas killed eight people, Ferreira said a current spike in gun demand is likely, as well.

“Whenever you see mass shootings like the ones that just happened, the one in Colorado and the one in Atlanta, you’re going to see an uptick and we generally see an uptick in registrations, as well,” he said. “Part of it is concern for their own safety, copycats — or people feeling gun laws will change.”

Also on Wednesday, a panel of 11 judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held “the Second Amendment does not guarantee an unfettered, general right to openly carry firearms in public for individual self-defense. Accordingly, Hawaii’s firearms-carry scheme is lawful.”

The 7-4 ruling by the panel was in the case of George Young Jr., a Vietnam War veteran from the Big Island who unsuccessfully applied several times for a license to carry a loaded firearm in public.

Young wants to carry a gun for self-defense and says that not being able to do so violates his rights. His 2012 lawsuit was dismissed, with a judge siding with officials who said the Second Amendment only applied to guns kept in homes.

He appealed, and three federal appeals court judges later ruled in his favor. But the state asked for a fuller panel of judges to hear the case, leading to Wednesday’s decision.

Young’s lawyer, Alan Beck, said he’ll appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We are hopeful the Supreme Court will grant review in Mr. Young’s case,” Beck said, and added Hawaii has a “de facto ban” on carrying guns in public.

The Second Amendment allows states “to enact common sense regulations like those we have in Hawaii,” said Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors in statement. The ruling properly upholds the constitutionality of Hawaii’s “longstanding law allowing persons to carry firearms openly in public when licensed to do so,” she said.

Neal Katyal, an attorney who represented Hawaii, argued before the appellate judges in November that individuals in Hawaii can carry firearms if they have good cause.

Statewide last year, 123 employees of private security firms applied for and were issued carry licenses. One private security applicant was denied, according to the attorney general’s report.

In addition, a total of 23 private citizens applied for a carry license in 2020, including 11 in Hawaii County. All were denied by the chief of police in the resident’s county.

Young’s applications failed to identify “the urgency or the need” to openly carry a firearm in public, the appellate court’s ruling noted: “Instead, Young relied upon his general desire to carry a firearm for self-defense.”

Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain, one of the dissenting judges, wrote that the majority’s finding that the Second Amendment only guarantees the right to keep a firearm for self-defense within one’s home “is as unprecedented as it is extreme.”

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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