But incidents like the recent shooting spree that killed one and seriously injured two others raises the question: Have Hawaii’s strict gun laws help nurture an active underground firearms market?
Probably not, says Jordan Lowe, resident Agent-in-Charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Hawaii, the federal law enforcement agency that investigates illegal firearms use and trafficking.
But “recent incidents suggest that there are more [illegal] firearms circulating again,” Lowe said.
Included in Hawaii’s thick cobweb of gun regulations are a ban on all “assault pistols,” a mandatory permit (the application for which requires proof of safety training) and the required registration of all firearms with the Honolulu Police.
The laws are meant to keep guns out of dangerous hands and curtail violent crime. Yet they didn’t prevent the 28-year-old Toby Stangel from opening fire on five random individuals earlier this month.
According to HPD officials, Stangel was using an unregistered semiautomatic handgun. And he had already been charged in 2004 with carrying a firearm without a permit.
Illegal firearms, according to Lowe, are smuggled on planes, transported in shipping containers or sent via FedEx. Still, “Hawaii is unique because we’re surrounded by water,” says Lowe, making it more difficult to bring in firearms as contraband.
While Lowe declined to elaborate on specific firearms cases investigated by ATF, he says that most of the firearms recovered from violent crime scenes here were at one point legally registered in Hawaii but “somehow exchanged hands” illegally. According to Lowe, guns are often obtained through robberies, after which they are typically sold or traded for drugs.
In 2009, $77,340 worth of firearms were reported stolen on Oahu, according to an HPD annual report. Less than 14 percent, or $10,776 worth, was recovered by police — meaning a sizeable chunk of stolen firearms likely remained in circulation illegally.
That same year, according to the report, 128 adults and 26 juveniles were arrested for offenses involving weapons.
But Lowe says he doesn’t think Hawaii’s strict gun laws are exacerbating the state’s underground weapons trade. According to Lowe, Hawaii’s firearms black market probably isn’t any more high-octane than those in states like Arizona and Alaska, where gun laws are much more lenient.
The fact that most of illegal guns recovered by police were once legally registered are another indication that strict state gun provisions probably haven’t had much of a bearing on the magnitude of the black market, Lowe said.
“There’s illegal firearms trafficking in every state,” said Lowe. “There’s obviously a market for it everywhere. If there’s a demand, there’s going to be a market.”
ATF’s Hawaii pursues “any leads that are available” and collaborates with HPD and other federal agencies when investigating cases. Other than two explosives specialists, investigators attend to all kinds of cases, whether they involve firearms, arson, terrorism or illegal alcohol and tobacco activities.
Hawaii Restricts Guns More than Most
Through various provisions, Hawaii keeps guns in check much more than the vast majority of U.S. states.
States that appear to have some the most lenient legislation include Arizona, Alaska and Mississippi, with most other states following close behind.
Those states don’t require prior authorization for purchasing a firearm, allow individuals to carry concealed firearms in public without a permit and maintain pro-gun legislation like workplace protection laws, which protect employees’ right to bear arms on the employers’ property.
In at least 10 states — including New Hampshire, Oregon, Louisiana, North Carolina and Idaho — carrying a firearm openly is allowed.
Hawaii is one of 16 states that require prospective gun owners to first obtain a permit and one of six that stipulate post-purchase registration. Only three other states have strict registration requirements on both ends of firearms purchase: Illinois, New York and New Jersey.
Illinois — where gun laws vary by city and county — has some of the most restrictive firearms legislation. For many years, handguns were completely prohibited in Chicago and surrounding municipalities. Now, they remain tightly regulated.1
Moreover, Illinois is one of two states (the other being Wisconsin) where carrying concealed firearms in public is illegal.2 In Hawaii, certain individuals who do possess a firearm legally are not prohibited from carrying it in public as long as it’s concealed.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that handguns were still banned in Chicago and surrounding municipalities. An city ordinance passed in July 2010 lifted the ban but established strict guidelines about those who can apply for a permit. ↩
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that carrying firearms in public is illegal in Illinois and Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, while carrying concealed weapons is illegal, open carry is allowed. The Wisconsin Legislature this year passed a bill legalizing the carrying of concealed weapons. The measure awaits the governor’s signature. ↩
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