When it comes to trying to get a license to carry a gun in Hawaii, John Bates is a regular Sisyphus.

Every year since 2005, the proud gun owner has fired off an application to the Honolulu Police Department for a license to carry a firearm in public. And every year, his application is rejected.

“I’m not trying to be belligerent, I’m really not,” said Bates, who had such a license in Florida. “They can’t tell me no, if I don’t ask.”

But the experience has him asking a bigger question this year. Exactly how does HPD and the state’s other county police departments determine whether they approve or deny firearm carry applications?

Sig Sauer P229 Legion pistol at Security Equipment on Young St.
Police denied the applications of all 14 private citizens who applied for concealed weapon permits last year. That may change after a recent federal appeals court decision found Hawaii’s restrictive gun rules unconstitutional. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It’s a question that has prompted the Honolulu Police Commission to look harder at the process as the state prepares for what some believe is an inevitability: allowing gun owners to carry handguns in public, something most states allow.

“We see that coming,” said Loretta Sheehan, chairwoman of the commission. “We’re two court opinions away from everybody packing.”

Earlier this summer, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the Hawaii law unconstitutional because it restricted gun owner George Young of Hilo from exercising his right to carry a firearm openly. The panel reversed an earlier Hawaii court decision.

“We do not take lightly the problem of gun violence, which the State of Hawaii has understandably sought to fight … with every legal tool at its disposal,'” 9th U.S. Circuit Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain wrote. “But, for better or for worse, the Second Amendment does protect a right to carry a firearm in public for self-defense.”

Hawaii Attorney General Russell Suzuki has asked for a rehearing of the case before the entire appeals court bench, writing that the decision this summer contains several errors regarding the state’s gun laws. Suzuki informed the court Hawaii allows the right to carry to “any otherwise-qualified individual” who can prove an urgency or need to carry a firearm and who is “engaged in the protection of life and property.”

Strict Vetting

But statistics indicate otherwise.

Gun owners in Hawaii face some of the strictest background checks in the nation. They must undergo a criminal background check, a mental health and physical health check and once approved they must register their guns with one of the four county police departments. Most gun permits are approved, but it is rare for police departments to grant a license to private citizens who want to carry a gun in public.

Despite all the vetting, none of the 14 private citizens who applied for a concealed weapons license in 2017 were granted one. But county police departments granted a concealed carry license to all 225 employees of private security firms who applied.

“We’re two court opinions away from everybody packing.” — Loretta Sheehan, chairwoman of the Honolulu Police Commission

Alan Beck is Young’s attorney in the lawsuit against Hawaii. He pointed to a 2011 federal Government Accountability Office report that showed Hawaii had not granted a single permit to openly carry a firearm in public. His own research found that since 2000, county police departments have granted only four carry permits to private citizens in Hawaii.

“They are not supposed to act in an arbitrary, capricious manner,” Beck said. But evidence points to exactly that, he said.

As the parties in the Hawaii case wait for the 9th Circuit to decide whether it will rehear the case next year, there are more questions about exactly how the carry licenses are vetted in Honolulu.

Honolulu Police Commission Chair Loretta Sheehan.
Honolulu Police Commission Chairwoman Loretta Sheehan says there needs to be a deeper look at the process for denying individuals permits for carrying firearms in public. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Bates says he was one of the 14 people denied a carry license in 2017 and now wants the Honolulu Police Department to provide information on how it decides who to reject for a permit.

“They just don’t want to talk about it,” said Bates. “There is no transparency whatsoever.”

Prompted by Bates’ experience, the Honolulu’s Police Commission asked HPD officials for evidence of its own internal guidelines for granting and denying carry licenses.

Why is that so important? In the Young lawsuit against Hawaii, the state has to be able to  point to actual procedures or it is effectively enforcing a ban on carrying firearms when their statute states otherwise.

“Absolutely it matters,” said Beck.

And the commission wants to prevent future lawsuits by assessing how exactly HPD determines who to approve and who to deny.

“They need to be in writing, they need to be discernible, consistent and defensible,” said Steve Levinson, a former Hawaii Supreme Court justice and vice chair of the commission at a meeting earlier this month.

Still Waiting For Answers

Despite the commission’s request in September for HPD’s gun carry application procedures, the department has yet to provide it.

Instead, HPD informed commissioners it is currently working with other counties and the attorney general’s office to present a combined document spelling out the procedures.

HPD declined several interview requests from Civil Beat to discuss how it processes firearm permits or what procedures it uses to deny a right to carry license.

It’s uncertain whether HPD has a written policy.

In a 2011 lawsuit filed by another gun owner against then-Police Chief Louis Kealoha over a rejected carry license, the city informed the plaintiff through a statement that no such document existed.

“Other than the statute itself, City Defendants are unaware of any specific documents setting forth the procedures or protocol followed in determining whether a license should be issued,” the statement read.

Sheehan hopes the department will eventually present something to the commission. “If we don’t have adequate regulations in place, then people’s constitutional rights could be violated,” she said.

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