Concerns about the coronavirus pandemic coupled with political turmoil could have contributed to an almost doubling in firearms permits and registration on Hawaii Island last year compared to 2019, leading to a waiting list at the Police Department of up to three months.
A $545,760 federal grant approved Wednesday by the County Council to automate and streamline the firearms registration process and improve record keeping and data availability is expected to help the department continue whittling the waiting list, which has already been reduced to about a month.
The money will be used to convert paper files to electronic formats, hire a temporary firearms records clerk and pay for overtime for staff to scan and review documents for electronic conversion.
“There’s been a huge jump in the amount of permits for firearms,” Lt. Scott Amaral said. “The big goal with accepting this grant is it will help us facilitate helping our customers.”
The Department of the Attorney General, Hawaii Criminal Justice Data Center, awarded the funding through the National Instant Criminal Background Check (NICS) Act Record Improvement Program.
Gun registration is a complicated process. Each individual handgun requires a separate permit tied to that firearm. So a customer would pay for the gun and the seller would send the serial number to the Police Department, holding onto the gun until the customer comes back with the permit.
Long guns such as shotguns and rifles have a more general permit that allows purchase of any number of guns for a year. Both handguns and long guns are then individually registered. People who bring their guns with them when they move to the island are also required to register them.
Amaral said the Police Department issued 5,008 gun permits last year compared to 2,900 in 2019. Firearm registrations increased to 11,084 in 2020, from 6,995 in 2019.
The department is whittling through the backlog and now it takes about a month for a person to get an appointment to get a permit, compared to two or three months last year, he said.
The new system should make a big difference, as people will be able to make appointments online and Police Department staff will be able to more quickly move through the background check process. The department handles new gun permits and registrations and also registrations for those who surrendered their firearms because of restraining orders and the like.
“We want to make sure we do our due diligence on our checks prior to anyone getting a firearm or getting their firearms back,” Amaral said.
That’s good news to local firearms dealers, who have to hold onto the firearm until the permit comes through. Sean Steuber, owner of Steubs’ Guns &Ammo in Hilo, said he still has guns awaiting permits from as far back as February, 2019.
“Anything they can do to speed up the process,” he said. “I think when you’re having to tell people that they have to wait months to get a gun, that’s an infringement of their Second Amendment rights.”
County Council members postulated about the motivation behind the surge in gun sales, which followed a national trend that’s resulted in shortages in both guns and ammunition.
“This is not unanticipated, the run on firearms,” said Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung. “All the national publications predicted there would be a run on firearms.”
Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder agreed.
“I had a thought that COVID would push more to have a weapon in their house,” he said.
Wellesley College economics professors Phillip Levine and Robin McKnight have analyzed gun purchasing trends and noticed a significant spike in March, 2020, even greater than those following school shootings when gun control was a topic of national debate.
“The geographic pattern in the additional sales is not correlated with COVID-19 death rates nor with increases in unemployment rates,” they said in a July 13 article published by the Brookings Institute. “This suggests that the spike in firearm sales resulted from a general sense of national apprehension, rather than a response to differential deterioration in local conditions.”
Whatever caused the buying frenzy, the local dealers are still working to rebuild inventory. Brisk sales coupled with factory shutdowns has resulted in shortages, especially for ammunition.
“Last year was huge volume — probably about three times normal,” Steuber said. “Business is slower now than last year, not because demand has decreased but our inventory was wiped out.”
D’Armand Cook, owner of C&S Hunting Supplies in Waimea, said his sales “definitely increased” last year, while getting permits for them lagged.
C&S is primarily an archery and hunting supply store. Archery equipment, which doesn’t require a permit, is moving very well, he said. In fact, “anything to do with outdoor activity” is popular, he said.
“We’re an FFL (Federal Firearms License) dealer, and we’re having a hard time finding firearms and ammunition. I think it’s across the board, whether you’re in Texas or Hawaii it’s much the same,” Cook said. “We get phone calls every day for ammunition and guns. It’s just steady, very steady.”