Hawaii already has some of the toughest gun control laws in the nation, but state House and Senate lawmakers are advancing a half-dozen new proposals this year to further restrict access to firearms for people who have criminal records or are being treated for mental illnesses.
One measure poised for approval in the state House would make it a crime for anyone carrying a firearm to consume alcohol outside of their own home or temporary residence. That bill is supported by the Honolulu Police Department, and likely would apply mostly to police officers because few people other than police are authorized to carry firearms in public in Hawaii.
The flurry of bills this year to tweak or tighten Hawaii gun regulations has alarmed some gun-rights advocates and lawmakers who contend the state’s gun laws are already restrictive.
During debate in the House on Thursday on a bill to prohibit gun ownership for people listed on the federal Terrorist Screening Database, Rep. Bob McDermott said some of the bills lawmakers are considering this year go too far.
“There’s a tension between public safety and individual rights, and I understand that. I think here we’ve crossed the line,” said McDermott, (R, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point). “I think this is a political bill designed to chip away at our gun rights, and I will tell you that in my 10 years in this body, this is the most gun bills I have ever seen in one session. So, I don’t know what’s going on, but I stand in opposition to this.”
Some of the bills were proposed by Honolulu police, who say they want to make changes to tighten existing firearms safeguards. House Judiciary Chairman Karl Rhoads said other bills may have been introduced in reaction to the long string of horrifying mass shootings on the mainland.
“The mass shootings
continue, and I think there’s also probably some frustration that Washington’s not doing anything,” said Rhoads (D, Chinatown-Iwilei-Kalihi). “Having said that, we have really strict gun control laws already, so we’re really just filling in pukas, unlike the feds and a lot of states (with less restrictive laws).”
Dr. Maxwell Cooper, a former president of the Hawaii Rifle Association who lobbied state lawmakers on gun issues for 25 years, said his review of firearms bills in play at the Capitol shows “there’s fewer that we like, and more that we don’t, I think.”
Cooper said the problem for the HRA is that Rhoads and state Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran are chairmen of the Judiciary committees in the House and Senate, which gives them control over virtually all firearms bills.
Any gun-control proposal that comes before Rhoads “is just a slam-dunk, it’s going to pass the way we don’t like it,” Cooper said. Keith-Agaran has been willing to work with HRA in the past, but this year hasn’t returned calls, Cooper said.
Keith-Agaran (D, Waihee-Wailuku-Kahului) said the bills being taken up this year are generally either “housekeeping” measures or are designed to update procedures to ensure that firearms background checks generate the best information available.
He agrees the state has some of the toughest firearms laws in the nation. Lawmakers have shown balance, Keith-Agaran said, by making exceptions to state law, such as approving a measure to allow visiting hunters to use firearms in Hawaii, and to limit the ability of police to collect firearms during disasters.
“I think for the most part the Legislature has been fairly balanced, but always trying to be on the side of public safety,” Keith-Agaran said.
Rhoads said, “We’re really trying to do common sense gun control that keeps guns out of the hands of people that none of us wants to have guns.”
Some of the firearms bills that are advancing this year include:
>> House Bill 625, which would add misdemeanor sexual assault and misdemeanor stalking to the list of criminal convictions that disqualify people from owning firearms or ammunition in Hawaii. That proposal is backed by the Honolulu Police Department and state Attorney General Douglas Chin.
In written testimony submitted to the House Judiciary Committee last month, Chin cited national research showing that 76 percent of the women who are murdered and 85 percent of women who survived a murder attempt by a current or former intimate partner were stalked in the year before the attack.
At least 11 states already prohibit people who are convicted of stalking from owning guns, according to the bill. The measure is supported by a number of agencies that advocate for victims of domestic violence.
McDermott, the Ewa Beach representative, warned that the new law would give the public “a false sense of protection” because people who really want a gun will probably find a way to get one.
People who are being stalked can already get a temporary restraining order against the stalker “and we take your guns away — that’s already in the law,” McDermott told his colleagues during debate on the bill in the House on Thursday. “So, why is this here? Why are we doing this? I guess we haven’t educated the public on the resource that they already have to protect themselves.”
Rhoads replied that the bill applies to people who have been convicted of crimes, not law-abiding citizens. McDermott was the only House member to vote against the bill, which needs one more House vote before it can go to the Senate for further consideration.
>> Senate Bill 2956 and House Bill 2632 would require that gun owners who have been disqualified from owning a firearm because of mental illness immediately surrender their firearms. The measures would authorize the chief of police to seize the firearms if the owner fails to comply.
Honolulu police say current law requires that when police learn a person is disqualified from gun ownership because of a mental illness, the gun owner is sent an order to give up their firearms, and then has 30 days to surrender or transfer their guns. Honolulu police Maj. Richard Robinson said the new law would not expand police authority to seize firearms.
“It merely allows them to take the protective action of recovering the firearm immediately instead of having to wait 30 days,” he said in written testimony.
Those bills are positioned for passage in both the House and Senate.
The NRA opposed the bills, arguing that a person might be hospitalized for behaving oddly while merely experiencing a temporary condition such as diabetic shock, and not mental illness. The bill could cause a person to “suddenly lose their Second Amendment rights simply for receiving care,” according to testimony submitted by NRA representative Daniel Reid.
>> House Bill 2629 would establish “continuous background checks” to alert police when Hawaii gun owners have been arrested in another county or state.
People convicted of violent crimes or selling drugs are banned from owning firearms here, but police in Hawaii have no system to alert them when a registered gun owner has been newly indicted or convicted in another county or state.
This bill would authorize police to enroll people who register a firearm in the FBI’s national “Rap Back” database, which will notify police when gun owners are convicted of crimes elsewhere, Robinson said.
HRA President Harvey Gerwig said the HRA strongly opposes the proposed new law because the organization maintains it would allow the authorities to enter “law abiding gun owners in a criminal data base.”
“It is simply one more hurdle for law abiding citizens to overcome to exercise their rights,” Gerwig said in written testimony to lawmakers.
>> House Bill 626 would prohibit a person carrying a firearm from consuming alcohol outside of their home, temporary residence, or a place they are staying temporarily, such as a hotel room. Violating the proposed new law would be a petty misdemeanor.
The Honolulu Police Department supports the bill, and Robinson said 46 other states already have laws prohibiting possession of a firearm by people who are intoxicated or are drinking alcohol. Honolulu police policy already specifically prohibits officers from handling their firearms while they are intoxicated, he said in written testimony.
>> House Bill 1813 would prohibit people who are on the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database from legally obtaining a firearm in Hawaii. (See related story on Page A10.)