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When Karen Rapoza isn’t teaching the first grade, you can find her shooting steel targets with two of her Ruger Vaquero .45 caliber revolvers, dressed in clothing out of a Wild West film.
“I wanted that hat and the boots,” said Rapoza, who is the treasurer of Single Action Shooters of Hawaii. “I just like shooting cowboy because it’s really fun.”
Rapoza and 25 other members of the gun club meet every month at the Koko Head Shooting Range to practice cowboy action shooting, which happens to be one of the fastest growing shooting sports in the country.
“Even in my school classroom, (students) make guns out of their Legos,” Rapoza said.
Rapoza is just one example of the growing number of people in Hawaii who have found a reason to buy a gun. Over the last 15 years, the number of guns being registered in the islands has skyrocketed, climbing nearly 300 percent, according to a recent report by the Attorney General’s Office.
A total of 420,409 firearms were registered in Hawaii from 2000 to 2014. And that’s on top of the 1 million firearms that were already in the state, according to an estimate by the Hawaii Attorney General’s office and the Honolulu Police Department in the late 1990s.
That means there could be more guns in Hawaii than residents, according to data from the Attorney General’s office.
“I think it’s pretty safe to say that there’s at least one firearm per state resident,” said Paul Perrone, who is the chief of research and statistics for the AG’s office.
Capt. Gerald Kaneshiro of the HPD’s Records Division thinks there are well over a million guns in the state, citing that many households own several guns.
But no one tracks how many guns leave the state, so it’s unknown exactly how many guns are in the islands at any given time.
A study by the two New York City cardiologists found that there are approximately 88 guns per 100 people in the U.S., which makes the AG’s estimate a little high.
Still, there are a lot of guns amid signs that a proliferation fueled by federal threats to restrict gun ownership may be tapering off.
According to the AG’s most recent report, the number of firearm registration applications that were processed actually decreased by about one-fifth in 2014 compared to 2013. That’s the first drop since the Attorney General’s office started tracking registrations in 2000.
Gun enthusiasts attribute the decrease to fewer people worrying about gun control laws and ammunition shortages.
“There are a lot of firearms available right now,” said Harvey Gerwig, who is the president of the Hawaii Rifle Association. “As the threat (of more stringent gun control) has gone down, so have the numbers.”
Hawaii’s gun ownership rates are still much lower than national averages, even with the increase of firearms ownership in the last decade. And the people in the Hawaii firearms community say the popularity of guns in the state will continue to grow.
They also say Hawaii residents have been stocking up on firearms because of an increasing distrust in police and a perceived need to defend themselves against criminals.
While national polls suggest that fewer people are purchasing guns than ever before, the people who are buying guns are stocking up on multiple weapons.
Depending on the make and model of the firearm, Hawaii residents can register multiple guns on a single permit. In 2014, there were double the number of guns registered than permits that were issued, which suggests many people registered more than one gun.
“When you see trends like these, it means that it makes more of a dangerous environment compared to what we had a decade ago,” said Meda Chesney-Lind, a criminologist and women’s studies professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
The national household gun ownership rate steadily decreased from an average of 50 percent in the 1970s to 43 percent in the 1990s. As of 2014, 32 percent of adults said they owned a gun or lived with someone who did, according to the General Social Survey by National Organization for Research at the University of Chicago.
The survey partially attributed those numbers to a decrease in hunting.
Still, some members of the Hawaii firearms community think polls and surveys aren’t dependable when finding out who owns guns and who doesn’t.
“A lot of gun owners are not going to respond to a poll … and are really nervous about that stuff,” said Bill Richter, president of Lessons in Firearms Education.
Hawaii and the District of Columbia are the only areas in the U.S. that require registration of all firearms, which means that it’s easier to track the trends surrounding firearms ownership here than in other states. Most states don’t require registration of long arms, while some require registration of handguns.
And Hawaii police departments must run background checks on everyone hoping to purchase a firearm. Hawaii residents can’t buy guns if they have a history of mental health issues or treatment; a drug or domestic violence offense; a restraining order; or a disqualifying juvenile offense.
Still, in 2014, only 0.8 percent of firearms registration applications were denied.
The rise in gun purchases over the last decade is generally attributed to a renewed political focus on nationwide gun control, prompting millions of people to buy guns, Perrone said. Many gun owners started “panic buying” after Barack Obama was elected because they feared increased gun control laws.
Harvey Gerwig agreed, saying the No. 1 reason for the increase in gun purchases is the presumed threat to people’s ability to buy firearms.
Yet Bill Richter, who runs a class that teaches people to use handguns, thinks that most people are buying guns for self-defense. In the last couple years, Richter’s monthly class has been filled with at least 25 new gun owners, with many others on the wait list.
“I think a lot of people are coming to the realization that the police can’t protect them,” Richter said. “Nothing against them, but physically (the police) can’t respond and prevent the majority of crimes.”