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Hawaii gun owner law joins state-by-state legislation trend

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(Read caption) Hawaii Gov. David Ige speaks at workshop held by the Western Governor's Association in Honolulu on Thursday, April 7, 2016.

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With federal gun legislation caught in Congressional gridlock, states are leaping to action.

Hawaii’s governor signed a bill on Thursday that will make his state the first to put its gun owners in a federal criminal record database. The system, FBI’s “Rap Back” service, will notify Hawaiian law enforcement when a Hawaiian firearm owner or applicant is arrested anywhere in the country, so police can evaluate whether the owner may continue to legally own the weapon.

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The Hawaii law took effect immediately – the same day Democrats staged a 25-hour sit-in the US House of Representatives in an unsuccessful attempt to force a vote on stricter gun laws – and it is just the latest state initiative to respond to gun violence since the 2012 shooting at the elementary school in Newtown.

“It's important to recognize that while we have seen a stalemate at the federal level, in Congress, since Newtown, we have seen significant reform at the state level. About half of Americans live in states that have reformed their gun laws since Newtown.” Adam Winkler, law professor at UCLA and author of "Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America," told Diane Rehm on June 20.

Six states have expanded background checks since Newtown, while others, including Texas, Kansas, and Arkansas, have expanded gun rights. Hawaii, which had the fewest gun deaths per capita of any state in 2015, already had some of the nation’s strictest gun laws, including a requirement that all guns in the state be registered with local police.

“This is about our community’s safety and responsible gun ownership. This system will better enable our law enforcement agencies to ensure the security of all Hawaii residents and visitors to our islands,” said Hawaii Governor David Ige in a statement. He signed two other gun-control measures on the same day intended to prevent people convicted of sexual assault and people diagnosed with a significant mental disorder from owning guns.

In response to concerns that law-abiding citizens are being entered into a database for exercising their constitutional right, Maj. Richard Robinson from the Honolulu Police Department described the new law as providing essentially “an ongoing background check on firearm owners to determine their eligibility to own and possess a firearm," as CNN reported.

Unlike Hawaii's newest laws, most of the state laws passed in response to mass shootings have loosened, rather than strengthened, gun control, according to a new Harvard Business School working paper. Researchers analyzed state legislatures’ response to mass shootings in their state, finding a 15 percent increase in the number of firearm bills introduced in the state in the following year. The study revealed a 75 percent increase in enacted state laws that loosen gun restrictions in the wake of mass shootings, but no significant effect on laws that tighten gun laws. The authors pointed out in an interview with The Washington Post, however, that the study doesn’t speak to the magnitude of the changes in those laws.

Jon Vernick, co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University, told NBC News, that though gun rights groups have seen more bills pass state legislatures since Newtown, gun control bills are farther-reaching.

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"For my money, the laws that tighten restrictions are more substantial than the laws that loosen restrictions," he said. "So we've seen states require a license to purchase a handgun, like Maryland, or have expanded background checks to all gun sales, like Delaware and Colorado. In my opinion, those kind of changes are more meaningful than saying in some states, 'Yes, you can now carry a concealed weapon in a place that serves alcohol.'"