Two years ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation achieved a significant technological milestone when its Next Generation Identification Program, or NGI, became fully operational.

In addition to expanding the bureau’s biometric identification capabilities, the system introduced “Rap Back.” That service continuously receives notifications about new criminal arrests of individuals in the FBI database. While the database largely includes people who work in “positions of trust” (school teachers, for instance), the bureau is expanding it.

Hawaii Senate Bill 2954 would take Rap Back in a significant new direction by making ours the first state to include its registered gun owners in the FBI database. Introduced by Sen. Will Espero, and passed by the Legislature in the recently concluded legislative session, the bill is under consideration now by Gov. David Ige, who has sent it to the attorney general’s office and other key departments for review.

Firearms instructor Cofi Jackson demonstrates an AR15 with SIRT or Shot Indicating Resetting Trigger at the gun show. Blaisdell Exhibition Hall. 21 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
A firearms instructor demonstrates an AR15 at a Honolulu gun show. If SB 2954 is signed, gun owners would be enrolled in a new FBI system as they register their firearms in Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Already, some gun advocates are calling “foul,” saying the bill would infringe on Second Amendment rights. Any infringement in this case, however, is acceptably minor. And it’s a small price to pay to ensure law enforcement is notified when there’s reason to believe someone who can’t legally possess a weapon, due to new criminal activity, may have one.

Here’s how Rap Back would work in practice for Hawaii: Any person buying a firearm in Hawaii, or bringing one into the state, would be required to register it with the county chief of police, just as is the practice now. Registrants would continue to be fingerprinted and photographed, undergo a background check conducted by the police department and, in some cases, pay a $14.75 fee.

The only change would be that those applicants would be enrolled into the Rap Back system using the same information they supplied on their county registration form. They would also pay what is expected to be a nominal fee (though the amount hasn’t been determined).

If at some point in the future the gun owner is arrested for a crime, Rap Back would automatically notify the county police department. Officers would be able to determine whether the new offense precludes the individual from continuing to possess firearms.

The NRA’s position on this bill only serves to underscore its moral bankruptcy.

That would represent a big upgrade over the current setup. If a registered gun owner in Hawaii runs afoul of the law now, the department where the gun was registered has no way to know, unless the individual comes to the department at some point to register a new gun — not exactly a likely scenario for someone accused of criminal activity to begin with.

And yet, it happens. Maj. Richard Robinson, of the Honolulu Police Department, told the Associated Press the department learns that about 20 people a year are prohibited from owning guns when they seek to register new weapons, a process he described as “discovering things by accident.”

Turning to new technology that makes such discovery intentional, rather than accidental, makes sense. A good argument can be made that eschewing such technological progress would amount to dereliction of duty, given that the state already takes on the responsibility of performing background checks on and registering gun owners and their weapons.

Rap Back would allow that responsibility to be met to its fullest, rather than counting on criminal suspects to self-identify by voluntarily registering new firearms. Registered owners who abide by the law would have nothing to fear — unless they’re among the persistently paranoid who practically fetishize the notion that a tyrannical government is always on the verge of coming for their guns.

The National Rifle Association (which traffics in stoking fear of government regulation) already is seeking to exploit Hawaii’s common-sense legislation, trying to turn that paranoia into more memberships and support for the same strong-arm lobbying tactics that too often prevent needed gun regulation from becoming reality here and elsewhere around the country.

Tuesday, the NRA Institute for Legislative Action posted a call to action titled “Hawaii: There’s Still Time To Contact The Governor on Three Anti-Gun Bills!” on its website. In addition to SB 2954, the group encourages its members to “CLICK HERE – TAKE ACTION” against bills banning the sale and purchase of ivory and other parts and products from endangered species and expanding the definition of “prohibited (gun) possessors” to include individuals convicted of misdemeanor stalking and harassment.

For the record, we support and have editorialized in favor of both of those bills (SB 2647 and HB 625); the NRA’s position against them and SB 2954 only underscores the group’s moral bankruptcy, as if anyone needed a reminder.

A National Leader In Safe Gun Laws?

Strong majorities of Americans support background checks for all gun sales. A 2014 Quinnipiac University poll pegged that support at 92 percent among Democrats and 86 percent among Republicans. It’s a fair assumption that they’d like those background checks to be as well informed as possible, rather than relying on old systems that may not provide critical information until it’s too late.

An attorney for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and Sen. Espero said that Ige’s signature of SB 2954 would make Hawaii a national leader in safe gun laws, a model for other states.

In a limited way, that may be true; but let’s not overstate the case. Hawaii continues to drop the ball in submitting mental health records to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. To date, it has provided 2,065 mental health records, which, according to the advocacy group Everytown For Gun Safety, makes Hawaii one the worst-performing states in the nation on this critical measure.

Hawaii continues to drop the ball in submitting mental health records to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

That’s better than three years ago, when Everytown’s previous report on the issue showed Hawaii had only contributed a single mental health record to the system. Still, there’s clearly room for and critical need for improvement. Although the vast majority of people with mental illness don’t commit acts of violence, it’s important to reduce access to guns for those few people with mental illness who pose a danger to themselves or others.

While progress on that front calls for stronger effort by the state, participating in the Rap Back system is an improvement that would help Hawaii immediately, if Ige signs the bill.

The Office of the Attorney General supplied testimony in support of the measure, including multiple recommendations that were subsequently incorporated into the bill. HPD, the state’s largest law enforcement agency, backs the legislation, too.

We appreciate the governor’s attention to the fine points of a thorough legal review. Assuming nothing unexpected turns up, the governor should sign the measure.

Learning that guns are in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them shouldn’t boil down to a stroke of good luck.

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