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Election, coronavirus pandemic may have led to growing interest in firearms on Oahu

Oahu has experienced a spike in firearm permits issued and firearms registered this year, the Honolulu Police Department has reported.

HPD said that through September there have been 10,485 total firearms permits issued on the island, up from 7,566 permits issued through September of last year — a nearly 40% increase.

The department also reported that 21,214 firearms have been registered through September, up from 18,672 through September of last year. That’s about a 14% increase.

At those rates, just over 14,000 firearm permits would be issued and nearly 28,400 firearms would be registered by the end of 2020 on Oahu. The city hasn’t issued that many firearm permits in at least eight years, according to data from the state’s Department of the Attorney General, and it hasn’t registered that many firearms in a year since 2016.

HPD Chief Susan Ballard told the Honolulu Police Commission during a Wednesday meeting of two potential reasons for the growing interest in firearms.

“It could be because the whole COVID thing is scaring people. And then we also see that every time there’s a possibility of a Democratic president, we see a huge increase in people trying to purchase firearms,” Ballard said.

The U.S. presidential election is less than two weeks away, and election polls have consistently shown Democratic nominee Joe Biden leading incumbent President Donald Trump.

Data from the Attorney General’s office does not show a spike in firearm registrations when former president Barack Obama was first elected in 2008, but they did generally increase throughout Obama’s eight-year tenure as president before tapering off after Trump’s term began in 2016.

Oahu isn’t alone in its growing interest in guns, but is following a nationwide trend.

According to data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, through September, there already have been more firearm background checks — about 28.8 million — in the U.S. than the entirety of any other year dating back to at least 1998, when the FBI began reporting annual numbers.

On top of the presidential election, Kainoa Kaku, president and director of the Hawaii Rifle Association, explained that guns have been more sought after during the COVID-19 outbreak because people, especially earlier in the year, were scrambling for supplies.

“We see this every hurricane season: No one prepares, and suddenly there’s hourlong lines at Costco, and everyone’s scattering to get what are essential things to survive,” Kaku said. “And when COVID-19 happened and everybody saw the rush to buy up supplies … there was also a huge interest in purchasing firearms to protect all the things you’re buying to live.”

But in the midst of the worst global pandemic in 100 years and a hotly contested presidential race, Kaku believes the high number of permits and firearm registrations on Oahu still severely underrepresent how many people are interested in owning guns.

For that he blames HPD’s slow and perpetually booked appointment system for permits and registrations, which he said was implemented at the start of Hawaii’s COVID- 19 outbreak in March, for being a bottleneck for many prospective gun owners.

“If there wasn’t the appointment scheme in place, I can guarantee, absolutely guarantee, that there would be tens of thousands of new gun owners in Hawaii more than there already are,” he said.

Kaku also said that, because of the inefficient appointment system, HPD is telling gun owners that they are not required to register their guns until COVID-19 restrictions are eased, so they are buying firearms and keeping them in their homes unregistered. But they are not allowed to take those unregistered firearms outside of their homes, Kaku added.

State law requires owners to register their firearms no later than five days after buying them.

Hawaii’s gun laws are already among the most strict in the nation, and Kaku said HPD designed the appointment system to further discourage gun ownership.

Ballard said during Wednesday’s commission meeting that federal CARES Act funding is being used to add appointment times for firearm permits and registrations. Additional appointment slots, some up to three months from now, were made available earlier this week and filled within hours, she said.

Ballard added that CARES Act funding might be used to allow permit and registration processing to be done during the weekend as well.

HPD said it is working on a plan to address the demand in firearm permits and registrations once CARES Act funding expires at the end of the year.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the 10,485 total firearm permits issued this year as “annual permits.” A permit for acquiring a rifle or shotgun does last one year, but a permit for a pistol or revolver last 10 days, according to state law.

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