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A police officer is gunned down on the Big Island by a fugitive with a stolen handgun during a traffic stop. An armed suspect raises a gun at police officers during a search of an apartment in a McCully high rise.
The number of violent crimes — murder, assault, rape and robbery — committed in Hawaii by suspects with firearms increased by 24 percent from 283 in 2014 to 351 in 2017.
While the count of violent crimes committed this year with a gun will not be available until next summer, early fall has brought a rash of shootings and conflicts that can make it seem as if Hawaii is in an unprecedented crime wave involving guns.
Not so, according to Paul Perrone, research chief for the Hawaii Department of the Attorney General.
“When you step back and look at the big picture we’re undeniably better off than we were 10, 20, 30 or more years ago,” he said. “What captures our attention are the periods in which several random events cluster together. And then we’re not so interested in periods when none of these things occur.”
In Hawaii, where the number of crimes are small to begin with, any rise or drop in the total can translate into a big percentage change.
“We’re at a bit of an upward trend, but we’re still below historically high levels,” Perrone said.
The state’s violent crime record-keeping began in 1994. The following year set the high-watermark for the number of violent crimes committed with a gun: 425.
Since then, it’s fallen far below that. In the last three years, though, it’s gone above 300 gun-related crimes annually.
For Perrone, who keeps tabs on crime for the state, there would have to be a huge spike for several years before it could be said that there’s a major new trend involving violent crime here.
“People tend to think crime is worse today than 20 years ago,” he said. “It’s not.”
Perrone is also in charge of keeping up with the number of legal guns permitted in Hawaii, which has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation.
While the number of times a gun was used during a violent crime in Hawaii has grown by a third since 2000, legal gun ownership in Hawaii has soared from 13,617 guns registered in 2000 to 40,635 in 2017.
Perrone and others say a rise in legal gun ownership has nothing to do with crime trends here because the background check is so extensive.
Every day, people line up at the registration office at the Honolulu Police Department where gun owners file their initial four-form application for a gun permit, which includes a criminal background and mental health check. Hawaii is among only a handful of states nationwide that requires gun registration.
“Regardless of how one might feel about Hawaii’s firearms and gun registration laws, one end result is we know that our legal gun owners are perhaps the most squeaky-clean, law-abiding group one might find,” Perrone said. “By definition, they’re a group who are least likely to be involved in violent crime.”
Those who do use a firearm in a crime are more likely to do it with a stolen gun, Kauai prosecuting attorney Justin Kollar wrote in an email.
“Most of the gun crime that we see involves unregistered (i.e. illegal) firearms,” Kollar wrote. “The vast majority of gun owners in this community are law-abiding.”
Gun owner Scott Hashimoto, 52, agrees.
“You have to go through so many hoops and background checks so, you know gun owners here are pretty much probably the most law-abiding people there are,” said Hashimoto. “I can live with it because now I have kids. As much as possible, I don’t want somebody to be able to buy something and walk out the door.”
It’s not known how many guns involved in crimes in Hawaii were illegally obtained.
Currently there is no penalty for gun owners who fail to report their guns stolen and if there was, experts say, it would be nearly impossible to determine if a gun owner deliberately failed to report it missing.
Also, as a matter of policy, police departments here do not typically discuss specifics of any pending investigations, including who owns a gun recovered from a crime scene.
In the shooting of Hawaii County Police Officer Bronson Kailoa and two of the six fatal shootings by HPD officers that have occurred this year, suspects were armed with guns and all three guns were obtained illegally.
The gun used by Gavalynn Mahuka in July during a seven-hour standoff with police in Nanakuli is thought to have been illegally obtained because HPD said he had a criminal record that prohibited him from legally owning a gun.
When fugitive Justin Waiki fired at Kailoa in July he did so with a gun stolen the previous March, according to Hawaii County officials. They offered no other details about the gun because of an ongoing investigation.
And last month, the Glock handgun that Freddie Joe Whitmore aimed at HPD officers was not legally owned by him, according to HPD Chief Susan Ballard. She declined to name the gun’s owner.
News outlets have reported it was owned by local attorney Christopher Woo. Attempts by Civil Beat to reach Woo to determine how that gun made it into the hands of Whitmore have not been successful and HPD has not released any other details.
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