WASHINGTON, D.C. — In Hawaii and in Washington, D.C., last week, there were reminders of why even after the furor of the Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school shootings, it’s difficult to pass stronger gun laws.

All but one of a spate of state gun control measures proposed in the emotional aftermath of the shootings died last week. The only measure still in play: a relatively minor one OK’d by the Hawaiian Rifle Association requiring people bringing guns into the state to get a firearms permit.

Others failed, state legislators said, for a variety of reasons mirroring the uncertainties surrounding passage of federal legislation calling for background checks and banning assault weapons. Opposition from gun-rights supporters is one hurdle, but keeping track of who can and can’t own guns raises issues around not only gun rights, but privacy rights.

In Hawaii, additional gun regulation also faces the fact that the state has among the most stringent gun laws in the nation, and unlike the mainland, little public urgency to make them tougher. Indeed, a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association last week found that Hawaii had the lowest rate of firearms fatalities in the nation and among the highest number of gun-control laws in the U.S.

“My guess is people are thinking we don’t have the same problems as in the mainland,” said Democratic Sen. Will Espero, about the lack of a push for an assault weapons ban proposed this year. Espero chairs the Senate Public Safety Committee.

“I’m not hearing from my constituents to ban them. I’m not getting many letters or emails. It hasn’t risen to the level of a top priority,” said Espero, who is undecided on an assault weapons ban.

He noted as well that Hawaii already bans pistol magazines, or rifle magazines that can be used in pistols, if they can hold more than 10 rounds, reducing the ability to fire off large numbers of shots.

An aide to Sen. Les Ihara, who proposed the ban, said he only did so as a courtesy to a constituent who wanted it, and never pushed the measure.

Espero sponsored the only gun-control bill moving through the Legislature. The bill passed the Senate last week and is moving to the House, where Espero said it has a good chance of passing. The measure had originally called for a gun buy-back program, but now closes the loophole for people bringing a gun into the state. The measure also sets aside money for police departments to spend on a buy-back program if they choose.

In addition, a number of other gun laws have gone nowhere for various reasons.

Max Cooper, legislative liason for the Hawaii Rifle Association, though, said gun-control proposals failed in the state and are uncertain nationally because gun rights have more support.

“True anti-gun proponents in Hawaii and nationally are actually pretty thin,” he said. “They have political goals, money, and media support, but they need some atrocity like the murder of 20 kindergarteners to galvanize public opinion and support from well-meaning legislators.”

Bill Relating To Mental Illness Also Dies

One measure would require people show that they are permitted to have a firearm in order to buy ammunition. The sponsor, Rep. Karl Rhoads, said his bill was “a common sense bill,” intended to keep people from stealing guns and being able to buy ammunition for them.

He said the bill never received a hearing in the House Public Safety Committee, perhaps because of opposition from the Hawaii Rifle Association. The gun-rights group argued the law would disproportionately burden law-abiding gun owners because criminals only use small quantities of ammunition. In addition, it would make it difficult on Boy Scout and firearms training organizations from buying ammo for students.

Committee chairman Rep. Henry Aquino, though, said the measure wasn’t given a hearing because there are only so many high-priority bills that can he heard.

“Hawaii already has one of the strictest gun control laws in the country. I feel there are adequate checks and balances…” he said. “We don’t want to make it a lot more stricter than it already is.”

He said, however, the bill can be taken up next legislative session.

Also withering this year is a bill sponsored by Sen. Josh Green that would have barred anyone “who is a danger to self or danger to others” from possessing a firearm. It would have also created a database of people prohibited from possessing the weapons.

However, the measure ran into opposition from the HRA, which said it’s unnecessary. Hawaii’s already stringent background-check laws require getting a permit for any firearm. Getting the permit requires a criminal background check in nearly all cases, including authorizing the release of an applicant’s medical history. Doctors are required to release any mental health information that’s pertinent to acquiring a firearm.

Green said the idea of a database took heat from privacy advocates. Mental health providers also worried that the law would discourage mentally ill people from seeking treatment for fear of losing their guns.

In the face of the opposition, Green amended his bill to simply create a task force of mental health professionals, civil liberties advocates, gun rights supporters and others to examine ways to make sure those who shouldn’t have guns do not get them.

Green said that despite current law, the state’s public and private mental health systems are not well coordinated, casting doubt on how effectively law enforcement is able to learn whether an applicant has mental illness or substance abuse issues. He said he’ll try to attach his task force idea to a House bill, but as chairman of the Senate’s health care committee, Green said he’d simply create the task force on his own.

Sunday night, The Hill reported concerns in Congress about implementing laws barring the mentally ill from having guns. Under current law, states are encouraged, but not obligated, to report certain red-flag cases to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), an FBI database through which licensed gun dealers are required to screen potential buyers to weed out prohibited people, the newspaper repored. Felons, illegal immigrants, fugitives and the severely mentally ill – among others – are barred by federal law from buying and owning guns.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) this week said he’s eying legislation to require states to report cases of severe mental illness to the federal government in hopes of reining in gun violence, according to The Hill.

Referring to gun debates nationally as well as in Hawaii, he said, “Everybody’s going to have to bend a little.”

Another measure would have required gun owners to re-register every year, and mandated that firearm owners who have a member of the household with substance abuse problems or a mental illness show proof to police the household member doesn’t have access to the firearm. The sponsor, Sen. Clarence Nishihara, said he withdrew the bill because registering firearms every year would have overwhelmed police.

Bills Gaining Some Traction In Congress

Nationally, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved a bill toughening penalties on people who buy firearms for another person who is prohibited from owning a gun.

However, measures to ban assault weapons and require background checks face an uncertain future.

Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono, a member of the Judiciary Committee, voted in favor of the measure, and said she supports the other proposals as well. An aide said that unlike the lack of pushing in Hawaii for a state assault weapons ban, Hirono has received a lot of emails and letters supporting a federal ban.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, was moving ahead with a bill expanding background checks for gun sales, even though talks with Republicans for a bipartisan bill have reportedly broken down. Schumer’s bill would require private sellers to verify buyers are legally allowed to purchase guns, but ran into Republican opposition because it would require private sellers to keep records of their sales.

The legislation, however, does not have implications for Hawaii, which already requires people buying guns from private sellers to get permits from police, the HRA’s Cooper said.

Cooper argued that Hawaii’s background check law “doesn’t have any measurable positive effect on public safety.”

“It has a negative effect because the whole system discourages law-abiding citizens from acquiring firearms,” he said. “Privately owned firearms reduce violent crime. Gun control thus increases violent crime.”

More controversial for Hawaii is Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.,’s assault weapons bill that would ban the sale and manufacture of more than 150 types of semi-automatic weapons with military-style features. That bill is under consideration by the Judiciary Committe, though The Hill noted that Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) said he has reservations about the legislation.

UPDATED: Cooper said Feinstein’s bill would make it illegal again in Hawaii to possess semi-automatic rifles and semi-automatic shotguns defined as “assault weapons.” Assault weapons have such features as a detachable magazine, pistol grip, flash suppressor, handguard, bayonet lug, and a threaded barrel Those have been legal in Hawaii and around the country, after the previous federal assault weapons ban expired in 2004, he said.

However, Hawaii law already limits the number of rounds magazines can hold, and bans certain semi-automatic pistols defined as “assault pistols.”

Assault weapons that are currently owned would be grandfathered in under the federal proposal, but permits would have to be kept permanently for those weapons under Feinstein’s bill, Cooper said.

“That’s a big deal with gun rights supporters, who believe registration is a pre-cursor to confiscation,” Cooper said.

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