Soon after the tsunami scare in February reminded Hawaii residents of their vulnerability, Dr. Maxwell Cooper, former director of the Hawaii Rifle Association, called his state representative.
Others were calling lawmakers with concerns about faulty warning sirens, inadequate shelters and reliable access to food and water if a powerful tsunami did reach the Islands. Cooper was worried about protecting guns.
Cooper asked state Rep. Ken Ito (D, Kaneohe) to help revive a bill to prohibit the state from confiscating legal firearms and ammunition during an emergency or disaster. The bill, similar to legislation passed on the mainland after Hurricane Katrina, had been sitting in the state House for a year and was going nowhere.
"The tsunami let everybody focus on why it was a good idea," said Cooper, who is retired and splits his time between Kaneohe and Washington state.
Within weeks the bill – sponsored by state Sen. Sam Slom (R, Kahala-Hawaii Kai) – sailed through the House with little objection. Gov. Linda Lingle signed it into law in May.
The new law is a rare victory for gun-rights advocates in the islands.
Hawaii has the lowest percentage of household gun ownership in the nation. According to a recent study by the Violence Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that has sought to restrict guns to prevent gun violence, 9.7 percent of households had guns in 2007, the latest data available.
Hawaii also has the lowest gun death rate in the nation at 2.82 deaths per 100,000 residents in 2007. In Louisiana, where police confiscated guns in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the gun death rate was 19.87, the highest in the nation.
But the number of guns in Hawaii is increasing. Last year, permits were issued covering a record 33,678 firearms, up 29.6 percent from the previous high in 2008, according to the state Attorney General’s Office.
In the past decade the number of firearms registered in Hawaii has jumped by 147.3 percent.
The National Rifle Association successfully challenged the gun confiscation policy in New Orleans after Katrina in federal court and pushed for state and federal laws prohibiting the seizure of legal firearms during emergencies.
The NRA used powerful video taken during the evacuation after Katrina – including footage of an elderly woman wrestled to her kitchen floor by police for holding her revolver – to argue for the need to protect Second Amendment rights.
President George W. Bush signed a federal law prohibiting gun confiscation by federal officials during emergencies as part of a homeland security spending bill in 2006.
"We all saw the video after Katrina," Slom said, "those visual images of law-abiding citizens being rousted in their houses, and in some cases actually being handcuffed, when looting was taking place and when we know that law enforcement is overstretched.
"They can’t react. There are not enough of them to do things. So it comes down to you have to protect yourself, you have to protect your family, and people choose to do that in different ways. This is one option."
Slom said his bill, which easily passed the state Senate last year and carried over this year, probably would not have moved in the House without the tsunami scare.
"That was a real-world experience," he said. "I know I had a lot of constituents call, and I’m sure other legislators did, too. They were very concerned about it, as well they should have been."
Ito, after speaking with Cooper, urged state Rep. Faye Hanohano (D, Puna- Pahoa-Hawaiian Acres) to move the bill out of her House Public Safety Committee. Hanohano had also heard concerns from some residents, but acted mainly because Ito asked her.
"People were starting to wonder, can they take the weapons?" Hanohano told a reporter in March.
The bill cleared the House Judiciary Committee and then the full House in early April. Liberal Democrats, who could have used the opportunity to debate the larger issue of gun restrictions, mostly stayed silent. Just six House Democrats voted against the bill.
Maj. Gen. Robert G.F. Lee, director of state Civil Defense, opposed the bill last year and warned that it could frustrate law enforcement during an emergency. He said the state had not moved to seize firearms during previous emergencies and disasters. He also cited the threat the nation faces from terrorism.
But Civil Defense chose to remain neutral this year.
There was only isolated looting on Kauai after the devastating Hurricane Iniki struck in 1992. State Rep. Hermina Morita (D, Hanalei-Anahola-Kapaa), one of the six House Democrats who voted against the bill, managed a small shopping center in Kilauea at the time and said no one took advantage of the chaos to plunder.
"It was not an issue. I think part of it was that it was a small community," she said. "You just saw the best in people come out in times of emergency."
Morita, who favors stronger gun restrictions, believes the new law is unnecessary. "I just saw this as a total sellout to the NRA," she said.
Gun-rights advocates, citing lessons from Katrina and the tsunami scare, told lawmakers that the aloha spirit might not prevail after another disaster.
State and county officials may not have seized firearms during previous emergencies, gun owners said, but that is no guarantee overzealous police would not try to infringe on Second Amendment rights in the future.
"The gun owners and law enforcement will both know their responsibilities in an emergency," Cooper said of the new law. "The gun owners will know they have to possess lawfully, and store lawfully, and law enforcement will know that under those circumstances they don’t need to confiscate firearms."