Schofield resident Jenny Rogers was with friends at Young Guns in Mapunapuna Saturday, browsing the aisles of the gun store.
Rogers, a 29-year-old whose husband is in the Army, described herself as a longtime gun enthusiast who owns firearms "to hunt and to protect myself." (She was interviewed before news broke of the shooting in Arizona that killed six people and wounded 14 others, including a U.S. congresswoman.)
Rogers is among an increasing number of island residents who own guns. On Oahu the number of new weapons registered each year has more than doubled in the past five years, from 5,219 in 2005 to 10,952 in 2010. It topped out at 13,182 newly registered guns in 2009.
And yet, Hawaii has relative low levels of gun ownership and firearms-related fatalities. The Washington-based Violence Policy Center said last year that in 2007, Hawaii had a gun death rate of 2.82 per 100,000 residents, the lowest in the country.
Arizona, meanwhile, ranked ninth highest, with a rate of 14.97 gun-related deaths per 100,000 people.
Hawaii also ranked last in 2007 in gun ownership, with 9.7 percent of Hawaii homes having one or more guns, the Violence Policy Center said.
The issue of gun ownership, and who is allowed to buy them, was brought acutely into focus this week following the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, and supporters at a Tucson shopping mall.
Suspect Jared Loughner cleared a federal background check and bought the pistol at a big-box sports store near his home on Nov. 30, the Associated Press reported. He customized the weapon with an extended ammunition clip that would have been illegal six years earlier.
The Glock 19 semiautomatic pistol allegedly used by Loughner is legal in Hawaii and can be purchased in a Hawaii gun shop. Hawaii law, however, bars the sale of high-capacity magazines such as the one allegedly used by Loughner, which carried 33 rounds. State law limits the number of rounds to 10.
Arizona does not regulate gun sales. Hawaii law is detailed and specific about who is prohibited from owing firearms. People who may not own a gun in Hawaii include those who are under indictment or have a conviction for a felony, any violent crime or the illegal sale of a drug.
REGISTRATIONS SHOOTING UP
Gun registrations on Oahu have continued to climb during the last five years with the exception of 2010. A huge jump in 2009 was was sparked, some say, by fears that President Barack Obama would crack down on gun ownership in his first year in office.
Source: Honolulu Police Department
There are also restrictions in Hawaii imposed on people diagnosed with mental health problems.
Loughner had been banned from his community college for mentally unstable acts, the AP reported, but it is not clear that the information was conveyed to Arizona authorities.
University of Hawaii spokeswoman Tina Shelton said UH policy is to report to both police and campus security immediately any threat posed by someone, either to himself or herself, or to others.
Honolulu police Maj. Kurt Kendro said he cannot be certain that Loughner would have been denied a gun permit here, even if erratic behavior had been reported to HPD.
"We would certainly look into anything that was reported to the police as part of our background check," said Kendro of HPD’s records division. "Whether or not it was disqualifying would depend on what was reported."
HPD denied 47 requests for gun permits in 2009 and 36 in 2010, Kendro said.
Hawaii law imposes a 14-day waiting period before a person can receive a permit to purchase a gun. A permit is good for six calendar days. A person then has five days to register a newly purchased gun with HPD.
Those seeking pistols or revolvers additionally must take an approved hunter education, firearm safety or firearm training class.
Exactly how many registered guns there are on Oahu is difficult for authorities to determine.
A person may obtain a permit to purchase a gun and then is required to register it. But while gun owners are required to inform HPD if they sell or give their guns to someone else within the state, they do not need to inform law enforcement agencies if they destroy their guns or move away and take their guns with them.
"We saw a large spike last year (in newly registered guns in 2009), but that seems to have tapered down a little bit," Kendro said.
Kendro declined to speculate about why the numbers jumped dramatically in 2009.
Harvey Gerwig II, president of the Hawaii Rifle Association, said the 46 percent jump in firearms registered in 2009 from 2008 was "driven entirely by the election of Barack Obama."
Gerwig said Obama has historically been anti-gun, and said gun enthusiasts feared he would try to reinstitute a ban on the type of semiautomatic rifles known commonly as "assault" rifles that was in place for a decade until the mid-2000s.
Dale Hayama, president of Young Guns, also believes 2009 was an anomaly following Obama’s election. Besides worries that Obama would try to enact anti-gun legislation, "a lot of the people felt with him being elected, crime was going to soar," he said.
Meanwhile, there were many news headlines about violent crimes in Honolulu that year, Hayama said.
"We personally sold a lot of home defense-type shotguns," he said, noting that his shop recommends pump-action shotguns to first-time gun purchasers seeking advice about a weapon for home protection. "It’s slowed down since."
Americans across the nation have been buying guns in increasing numbers in recent years because more of them are convinced they need to protect themselves, Gerwig said.
"Everybody in law enforcement, or practically everybody, agrees that the police are not there to protect you, the police are there to respond after the fact," he said. "People are recognizing the fact that the responsibility to protect myself and my family lies with me. And that is really spreading across America very quickly."
Hayama agreed, noting that people are also fearful that criminals are bolder and willing to take more risks than in years past. "People before wouldn’t break into your house in the middle of the day or in the evening when you’re home," he said. "They would wait until nobody was home and wait to burglarize your house rather than rob you."
Back at Young Guns, Liliha resident Jay Liu said he got into firearms about a year ago after an uncle began taking him to the rifle range at Koko Head. For Liu his Glock semiautomatic handgun is mainly for sport. "Personally, for me, it’s more fun," he said.