Hawaii’s four mayors are aligned with the president when it comes to strengthening federal gun laws. But they don’t think we need stricter regulations here at home.
“I think everything always needs to be reexamined, nothing is ever perfect,” said Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi. “But I think what we have seems to be working here in Hawaii.”
“I don’t think we’re searching for more restrictive legislation,” he said.
The mayors of Maui, Kauai and Hawaii counties all signed an open letter from the U.S. Conference of Mayors formally backing President Barack Obama’s plan to strengthen background checks, track ammunition sales and increase penalties for straw purchases of guns. Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell did not attend the mayor’s conference last month but said he would also sign it. The letter also supports U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposal to ban assault weapons and other high-capacity magazines.
Civil Beat spoke with three of Hawaii’s four county mayors. Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa was not available to comment, a spokesman said.
The mayors noted that Hawaii’s gun laws are already among the nation’s strictest. There’s a lengthy checklist of prerequisites that must be met before a gun permit is awarded — and several visits to the local police station are required.
But even Hawaii is not immune to mass shootings. In 1999, Xerox service technician Byran Uyesugi shot and killed seven coworkers. In June 2011, Toby Strangel went on a drug-fueled shooting spree, firing on five random people, killing one and seriously injuring two others. Both incidents occurred in Honolulu.
Still, Hawaii’s mayors say they feel gun owners here do a good job of handling their firearms responsibly. Many gun owners in Hawaii are also hunters, especially on the neighbor islands.
“I come from a hunting family,” said Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. “When we grew up, we went to hunt pig and goat. There’s a way to do it responsibly.”
There were 14,460 permits issued in Hawaii in 2011, covering a record high total of 36,804 registered firearms — a 20 percent jump from the previous year, according to the most recent data. About half of those firearms were imported from out-of-state. About 1.5 percent, or 230 applications, were rejected.
Although the state does not track the number of firearms that permanently leave the state each year, the Attorney General’s office estimates that there are roughly 1 million privately owned firearms in Hawaii.
In Honolulu, there were 1.8 homicides per 100,000 people last year, making it among the safest big cities in the country, Caldwell said. Police said that gun violence was also down compared to the previous year.
“I think the stricter gun laws are the less there is violence with guns,” Caldwell said.
Hawaii requires a six-hour firearms course or two-day state-run hunters education class — either is an acceptable prerequisite to buying a handgun or long gun. Then there’s a waiting period as gun permits are processed. During that time, police do a background check, fingerprint check and medical physicians are contacted as well as part of a mental health check.
“I think these are some of the things that make us stand out compared to other states around the country, and I’m proud of that,” Caldwell said.
He added that he supports having a conversation that looks at preventing another mass shooting like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. And like the other mayors, Caldwell’s not anti-gun.
“I hunt from time to time, I’ve done target shooting from time to time,” he said.
What’s Hawaii’s Secret?
The mayors all agreed that one lesson Hawaii can take away from the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., is the need for stronger support for those with mental health problems.
“The bigger issue is how do you address the mental health needs of our country, both for gun violence and for homelessness because as you know large portion of our homeless (have) mental health issues,” Caldwell said. “The number of young adults committing suicide continues to rise. We struggle with ways how to we reach out to people and get them the treatment they need.”
Still, Hawaii must be doing something right.
The Aloha State has the lowest murder rate in the country, at 1.2 per 100,000 in 2011, according to the FBI. In 2010, the rate was 1.8 per 100,000.
What’s Hawaii’s secret? Strong gun laws and geographical isolation likely play a role. But so does local culture, the mayors say.
“We’re pretty much an island-setting, which is different from a city,” said Carvalho. “I think a lot of people know each other. So if it’s escalating to a confrontation or something tragic, I think it just doesn’t get to that point.”
Kenoi, the Big Island mayor, said he gets asked a lot about what makes Hawaii different.
“You grow up here with two simple things. But they are very powerful things,” he said. “We all take off our slippahs and shoes. That simple act is an act of respect and kindness when you go into people’s homes. You don’t ask to leave it on, it’s something you just do.”
“The other thing, every adult we call them ‘auntie’ and ‘uncle,'” Kenoi said. “There’s just this built in sense of family.”
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