A mass shooting in Texas left dozens dead, and it turns out a simple step may have kept the gunman from legally getting his hands on firearms.
We wanted to know what’s preventing that from happening in Hawaii.
Always Investigating checked with the attorney general, the military, and the police to find out exactly how the process works, and how often it has caught and stopped people who shouldn’t legally acquire a firearm.
While we have a better grade on this than most states in the nation, there’s still room for error.
Devin Patrick Kelley killed dozens of people at a Texas church this month. It was the tragic culmination of a history that included a domestic assault conviction for abusing his former wife and stepson.
Such a conviction should have stopped sales of legal guns to the killer, but the Air Force says it never entered the court-martial outcome into the national background-check database.
Could this happen after Hawaii convictions that are supposed to block gun possession? We asked authorities and victim advocates: How good are our systems in Hawaii at making sure everyone who is supposed to be in the database is in there?
“We do our best,” said Karen Droscoski, deputy attorney general with the Office of the Attorney General’s Criminal Justice Division. “The Judiciary, once they have a conviction or a judgment of conviction, the clerk in that courtroom would then enter that in the Judiciary’s database which then automatically gets sent to the Hawaii Criminal Justice (Data Center) database system.”
County-by-county gun permit and crosscheck procedures
Once it’s in that database, it’s supposed to tie right in and be visible to anyone in the country who accesses the NICS or National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Local police departments here use that to see if prospective gun buyers name and birth dates match up with anyone not allowed to get a firearm, using National Crime Information Center, Interstate Identification Index and NICS Indices data.
In Hawaii, police also check the state Department of Health’s medical marijuana patient database.
“When someone is convicted of any kind of crime of violence, they are prohibited from possessing a firearm in the state of Hawaii,” Droscoski explained, “any offense that involves injury or threat of injury to another person. That also includes misdemeanor crimes such as sex assaults in the fourth degree and harassment by stalking.”
Last year alone, more than 21,000 people applied for gun permits statewide, and the crosscheck thwarted more than 300 attempts to get gun permits by applicants who were denied for a broad range of disqualifying offenses.
Read More: Firearm Registrations in Hawaii 2016
“In Hawaii, anyone who is convicted of a crime of violence would also include abuse of household or family member,” Droscoski said, “spouses, former spouses, people in a dating relationship such as a boyfriend and a girlfriend, and anyone that has a child in common.”
The database crosscheck caught nearly 50 gun applicants who were ineligible due to domestic-violence related convictions, restraining orders, warrants, and threatening.
But domestic violence prevention advocates see room for improvement.
“There is nothing about our system that is airtight,” said Nanci Kreidman of the Domestic Violence Action Center. “The system needs reform, enforcement, and accountability.”
Always Investigating asked, where can things go wrong along that chain of events?
“Human error is always an issue, so if the clerk of court is backed up and they’re not able to get the information in as fast as they can, that could be a problem,” Droscoski said. “But as far as I know, once a conviction is handed down by a judge, that information is entered into the database immediately.”
That’s a lot better than how it used to be, when the system relied on paper and data entry.
“In the past, we’ve had to rely on going to the courthouse and getting a photocopy or a certified copy of a conviction before it was entered into any kind of database,” Droscoski said. “What we have right now as far as Hawaii is as tight as can be.”
That’s for local court convictions. But what about federal court and any Hawaii military court martials?
“The federal government, anyone convicted on federal court martial or any proceedings on the federal side, they’re responsible for entering that conviction information into their own database,” Droscoski said.
Always Investigating asked the military too. Most branches deferred to Department of Defense’s ongoing Texas-related procedural review.
“The Department of Defense Inspector General is currently conducting a comprehensive investigation into how each of the Services share information via the National Crime Information Center database,” the U.S. Army in Hawaii said in a statement. U.S. Navy officials here provided a similar reply.
The Hawaii-based Marines explained the process. The investigative side – for instance, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service for Navy and Marine Corps – “has the responsibility to submit uniformed crime reporting to DoD’s Defense Incident Based Reporting System (DIBRS) which when processed turns into statistical information that is provided to the FBI for inclusion into their National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) to comply with DOD’s statutory requirement to provide uniform crime reporting data to FBI.”
All of this may help stop guns from legally getting into bad hands in the first place, but what about perpetrators who already have firearms?
“When someone applies to have a temporary restraining order against another person, the person who the restraining order is against is automatically prohibited from having a firearm,” Droscoski said. “Once it’s served upon the person, the police will then try and retrieve the guns if it’s in the restraining order that this person has or is in possession of firearms.”
Always Investigating previously exposed an endemic backlog of unserved restraining orders due to a variety of systemic hurdles. We wanted to know, what happens if police don’t get the guns ordered for surrender by court order?
HPD said: “A police report is made for a gun owners who fail to comply, and attempts to recover or otherwise account for the firearms will be made. The report would be made under HRS Section 134-7, Ownership or possession prohibited.”
“The entire system must identify the enforcement gaps and work together to close them. Domestic violence is a potentially fatal crime,” Kreidman said.
“Typically, if there’s a domestic-violence-related issue and there’s a firearm involved, most times the perpetrator knows or was in a relationship with the victim,” Droscoski said. “I’m sure there’s going to be lots of new legislation coming up for the 2018 session due to unfortunately a lot of the things that have recently happened on the mainland.”
We’ll follow up to see what, if any, changes police, courts and the Department of Defense make, and if any new laws some have advocated for gain traction, such as purchase volume limits at any one time, or background checks at point of sale.