This year, there have been 43 school-related shootings in the United States. With the death toll rising, the nation’s officials are taking a hard look at how to stop the trend, and the conversation has again turned to gun control.
In response to the Oct. 1 shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, President Barack Obama said he would redouble efforts to strengthen gun laws, and his resolve was echoed by citizens and lawmakers throughout the country.But the president’s statements also ignited the outrage of Americans who think the laws are already too harsh and that the guns aren’t the problem. They say too many laws bind the hands of law-abiding citizens while criminals skip the process and arm themselves anyway.
“It’s a big process to get a gun,” said Nakana Duarte of Wailua, who owns several rifles, “but it’s worth it.”
What wouldn’t be worth it, Duarte said, is adding more red tape to the process.
“Criminals are going to get guns no matter what laws you make,” Duarte said. “So really, all you’re doing is making it harder for people that follow the law.”
Kauai County Police Chief Darryl Perry said there can be debates about whether it’s the gun or the individual
“But I say you cannot separate one from the other,” he said. “Most of these individuals who do mass shootings have mental health issues and we have to stop these individuals from getting these guns.”
Last year, the Kauai Police Department processed 1,741 gun permit applications and issued a total of 1,563. As of 2014, there were a total of 3,807 firearms that were bought within the state and 1,802 guns imported from other states.
In 2014, the amount of arrests on the island was 4,051. Of those, one was a murder charge, one was first-degree robbery, one involved storing the firearm in the wrong location, two were for possession of a loaded weapon on a public highway, and three were for registration violations.
“Really, the number of arests that involve a firearm is really low on the island,” Perry said.
Hawaii’s lawmakers acknowledge there is a nationwide violence problem, and agree the recent school shootings are heartbreaking.
“We have already lost too many Americans to these senseless acts of violence. We have to ask ourselves when we will draw the line and when enough is enough,” said U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono. “When 9 out of 10 Americans believe we should do something about gun violence, it becomes a national issue that all of us should address.”
Hirono and other Hawaii lawmakers, however, say it’s not the state’s gun laws that are the problem.
“I don’t see that we’ll tighten up legislation on Hawaii anyway, because our laws are real good,” said Rep. Dee Morikawa. “Hawaii’s laws are pretty strict as it is.”
Rep. Jimmy Tokioka said he supports the right for individuals to purchase guns for recreation and hunting, while also supporting Hawaii’s laws.
“Many of the states clearly don’t have the regulations that the state of Hawaii does regulating gun safety laws,” Tokioka said.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said Hawaii’s gun laws should be a model for the rest of the country.
“If the rest ofthe nation followed Hawaii’s lead on gun safety, we would have fewer guns on the streets and safer communities,” Schatz said. “Hawaii does have smart gun rules and because of that, we have the fewest firearm-related deaths in the country.”
That comes from a 2013 study from the Violence Policy Center that ranked states according to their gun death rates. Hawaii’s gun death rate was the lowest in the union at 2.71 per 100,000 and household gun ownership of 9.7 percent. The state that ranked the highest in the study was Alaska, with a gun death rate of 19.59 per 100,000 and household gun ownership of 60.6 percent.
How it’s done on Kauai
Jason Bryant, owner of JGB Arms in Lihue, said Hawaii has several unique rules for getting a gun.
“Every single firearm that’s bought within the state, and every gun that’s imported, is registered with the police department,” Bryant said. “Every time you get a gun you have to fill out a permit to acquire, and every permit requires a clean bill of mental health.”
Ben Ellsworth, owner of Kauai Eco Sporting Clays, a shooting range in Lihue, said it’s “a hassle” getting a gun in Hawaii, but the process makes sense.
“It’s a lot of hoops to jump through and I don’t see how they really could make it more strict,” Ellsworth said.
There are a few ways to obtain a gun legally, but every one of them begins with a permit, for which you have to apply at the police station. Applicants are required to have a valid form of identification and have taken some sort of firearms safety class, which usually involves two hours of live fire training at a range. Applicants are fingerprinted and agree to a background check — and then wait 14 days for approval.
There are two types of permits: a long gun permit and a handgun permit.
“The long gun permit is good for an entire year and you can buy as many guns as you want once you’ve gotten that pemit,” Ellsworth said. “But the handgun permits, those are way more complicated and different.”
For handguns, the application requires the make, model and length of barrel of the gun an applicant wants to buy.
No matter the type of firearm, the last step of the process is to register each gun with the police department within five days of purchase.
“If you don’t do that, then you’re holding it illegally and they can arrest you for it,” Ellsworth said.
The list of those who can’t acquire a firearm is long in Hawaii and includes anyone with a felony on their record, anyone who has been in treatment for dependence on liquor and other intoxicants, and anyone who has been diagnosed with mental illness. In some cases, notification from a doctor that says an applicant is no longer adversely affected will allow them the chance to apply for a gun.
Packing in public
Once a gun is obtained, it can only be legally used in a few places. Hawaii has a regulation named “place to keep” that lists where gun owners can store their firearm.
“That place is at home, in your abode, locked away,” Perry said. “You can transport it from your home to the police station to get it registered, to and from the gun range, or to and from wherever you are going hunting.”
Perry said that means you can’t just lock your gun in your trunk when you go out to a restaurant or the movies. It has to be stored at home in a locked, safe place.
In addition, a permit to carry a gun in public is virtually nonexistent on the island.
“I have about three requests for a concealed or open carry license every year, and in the total eight years I’ve been here, I’ve only issued one,” Perry said.
That one permit was issued to a woman whose husband was fighting in the Middle East and whose family had received death threats from terrorists. The woman had achieved an expert-level training on her particular firearm and was on Kauai for one day with her daughter.
“I looked over the paperwork and worked with the FBI on that one and I granted her a concealed carry permit for one day,” Perry said.
Perry said he’s received requests for a concealed carry permit because the current social climate makes applicants feel unsafe
Hawaii law states that the county chief of police may issue concealed or open carry permits if your life is in danger, or if there are extenuating circumstances that can be explained to the chief.
“There needs to be a credible threat,” Perry said.
Ellsworth is one of those who thinks that he, and other competent individuals, should be able to carry a gun in public.
“I feel like it’s an infringement on my rights, not being able to carry the gun. It’s against the law,” Ellsworth said, “and if the freakin’ North Koreans land at the Lihue airport, you’re going to want me out there with a 30-round magazine defending what we have here.”
Ellsworth said it’s not only a matter of keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, it’s about getting them into the hands of those with the right skill set to defend themselves and their neighbors responsibly.
“My opinion is that if everybody had a gun, there’d be less crime,” Ellsworth said. “If there were more armed people in these mass shooting classrooms, all it would take is one guy with a gun to retaliate and end the situation.”
“Just because somebody has a gun, doesn’t mean that they’ll stop an active shooter,” Perry said. “It has to be somebody that’s trained and that knows what they’re doing, and that has law enforcement powers, and that knows the difference between property crime and a crime of violence.”
Strict laws, Perry said, are the way to go — and Hawaii is setting the example for the rest of the nation.
“More guns is not the answer,” Perry said. “It doesn’t make sense and it’s not going to solve our problem.”
Written for The Garden Island Newspaper, published on Oct. 11, 2015. Photo taken for The Garden Island Newspaper October 2015.