What do Tulsi Gabbard, Joe Souki, Gene Ward, Calvin Say, Cindy Evans, Sharon Har, Kirk Caldwell, Bob McDermott, Will Espero, Fred Hemmings, Clayton Hee, Kymberly Pine, Henry Aquino and Sam Slom have in common?

Sure, they are all Hawaii politicians, past, present or future. But there is a lot of daylight between them when it comes to political views.

What they all share, however, is that each has accepted campaign donations from gun lobby interests. So did dozens of other local politicians, according to state Campaign Spending Commission data going back to 2008.

The question of which U.S. politicians get money from the National Rifle Association, its political action committee and its affiliates and their PACs has gained new currency in the wake of the Florida school shooting last week.

Wayne LaPierre is executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, which donates to Hawaii politicians. Flickr: Gage Skidmore

Several Civil Beat readers emailed saying that they want to know where the money is going locally. They’re interested in making it a campaign issue.

But whether the most recent mass shooting will amount to Congress enacting “common sense” gun-reform laws rather than merely issuing empty “thoughts and prayers” is unclear. 

But something does seem to be in the air.

‘Enough Is Enough’

Just on Tuesday alone, student survivors from the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School headed to the state capital in Tallahassee to protest (“Enough is enough!”). A gun shop owner in Washington state said he would no longer sell AR-15 rifles to people under 21, President Trump asked the Justice Department to ban gun modifications like bump stocks and a new poll shows a record-high number of Americans support stricter gun laws.

That said, Florida legislators also rejected an attempt to revive a bill banning assault rifles.

Still, what’s motivating folks to learn who’s getting cash from the NRA? They’re threatening to kick them out of office. It’s the same scare tactic used by the NRA to keep politicians toeing the line. 

As it turns out, not a whole lot of money is actually going to people in congressional office.

“Of the tens of millions of dollars the National Rifle Association has spent over the years in support of gun rights, only a small share goes directly to individual members of Congress,” CNBC reported the day after the Florida shooting.

In the 2016 election cycle, the NRA spent just over $1 million on candidates for federal office.

“The total spent toward individual candidates compares with $3.2 million on lobbying in 2016 and some $54.4 million on outside spending,” according to date from the Federal Elections Commission compiled by Open Secrets.

More than 90 percent went to Republicans.

No money in recent years has gone to members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation, including Gabbard, now a congresswoman and formerly a former state legislator and Honolulu City Council member. (Look for “Tamayo, Tulsi Gabbard” in the data search above; that was her married name at the time.)

The NRA also gives each member of Hawaii’s delegation a grade of F when it comes to supporting gun rights.

A Statehouse Fight

The reason the NRA spends so little, comparatively, on members of Congress, is that “much of the battle over gun regulation is being fought in statehouses, not on Capitol Hill. While federal gun laws are relatively weak, the number of state regulations governing the purchase and use of firearms varies greatly.”

Hawaii has among the strongest gun-control laws in the nation, a major reason why our deaths by guns are among the lowest. The Violence Policy Center contends “that states with weak gun violence prevention laws and higher rates of gun ownership have the highest overall gun death rates in the nation.”

Which isn’t to say that Hawaii is gun free.

A 2015 report from the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office found that gun ownership had grown by 300 percent over the past 15 years. That brought the total number of registered guns in the state to 1.42 million, or about one firearm per resident.

Nor are we untouched by mass shootings.

Byran Uyesugi killed seven of his fellow Xerox Engineering Systems employees in 1999. Frighteningly, Kapolei Middle School experienced a lockdown Friday following a shooting threat on social media.

And so, Hawaii continues to see gun-control bills introduced at the Legislature and the gun lobby responding by lobbying against passage.

Bump Stock Ban Proposed

Among the measures wending their way through the 2018 session are House Bill 1908 calling for a ban on “multi-burst” trigger activators and Senate Bill 2046 prohibiting bump stocks.

Harvey Gerwig of the Hawaii Rifle Association, the local NRA chapter, strongly opposes the latter bill, which he called “overreaching and vague” and which could “turn an innocent gun owner into a felon.”

The local NRA lobbyist Daniel Reid also hates the bill. Same goes for HB 1908 (“broad and overreaching”), which Gerwig likewise rejects (“extremely broad and sweeping”).

Rep. Bob McDermott, seen here at a Capitol hearing in 2014, happily accepts NRA money. ©PF Bentley/Civil Beat

No wonder, then, that the NRA’s Political Victory Fund gave $7,550 since 2008 to local pols and the HRA’s PAC (called the Hawaii Citizens’ Rights Political Action Committee) spent $29,455.

State Rep. Bob McDermott, a Republican, has accepted $750 from the NRA PAC since 2012. But he got nothing in 2016.

“I always draw support from Second Amendment supporters, so it’s a fit,” McDermott said of the donations. “But not in the last cycle, and that disappoints me because I have been a strong supporter for their rights and I found it puzzling.”

Senator Les Ihara during Editorial board meeting.
Sen. Les Ihara, seen here in Civil Beat’s offices in 2016, rejects donations from the pro-gun lobby. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

State Sen. Les Ihara did not immediately recall receiving $500 from the NRA in 2012, nor returning the money. But Civil Beat’s call to him Tuesday jogged his memory.

Asked why he rejected gun money, Ihara said, “I think that the recipient has a certain responsibility for from whom their donations come, and in that case I felt I did not want to accept a contribution from this contributor.”

A screen shot taken Feb. 20 from the Hawaii Rifle Association’s website. HRA

Whether the gun lobby cash actually influences votes can sometimes be hard to tell.

In McDermott’s case, he probably would have voted along the same lines as the NRA anyway, as he did last week when he voted against the House multi-burst ban.

As for Ihara, he voted in favor of the Senate bump-stock bill on Feb. 6.

Civil Beat reporter Nick Grube contributed to this report.

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