In response to mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio that killed 31 people, Americans across the country are calling for stricter gun laws and turning their attention to states like Hawaii that appear less troubled by gun violence.
It does happen in Hawaii — just last week, a Honolulu police officer and a male suspect were shot near Pokai Bay. The last known mass shooting — known as the Xerox shootings — took place in 1999, leaving seven people dead.
But fewer people have died in Hawaii from gun violence in recent years than in any other state except Rhode Island.
In 2017, Hawaii had both the lowest number of gun deaths — 39 — and the lowest rate — 2.5 per 100,000 people, data from the federal Centers for Disease Control shows. Rhode Island beat Hawaii in 2016 and 2015.
That’s in comparison to the 3,513 gun deaths in Texas in 2017, or a rate of 12.4 per 100,000, the highest in the nation that year.
Hawaii’s strict gun laws have led some groups to sue.
“You can see how there’s this correlation,” said Laura Cutilletta, managing director of the Giffords Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence, an advocacy organization. Her organization’s analysis shows that stronger laws lead to lower gun death rates.
The center ranks Hawaii as having the seventh best gun laws out of the 50 states and a grade of A- on its scorecard, which the organization has been putting out since 2010. More than half of the states have an F.
“Hawaii is a strong state,” she said. Among other things, Hawaii requires gun dealers to get licenses and owners to register most firearms. The state regulates ammunition and restricts open carry, which prompted a federal lawsuit by local gun owners.
Hawaii also put in place this year what’s known as a “red flag law,” or “extreme risk protection order,” which enables family members, medical professionals or others to prevent people from accessing guns when they appear to pose a threat.
Sixteen other states, including California, Connecticut and Florida, and Washington D.C., have passed similar laws.
State Sen. Karl Rhoads, who sponsored the Hawaii bill, said it’s meant to address the issue of people who buy their guns legally, but go through “some sort of breakdown.”
“It’s not foolproof,” Rhoads said, but it does stack the odds against a potential mass shooter.
But Harvey Gerwig, president of the Hawaii Rifle Association, said he finds these extreme risk protection orders problematic. His organization tried to defeat the bill.
“I understand with what’s been going on with all the crazy people shooting people that there’s a piqued interest in red flag laws,” he said. “But the fact is that most of these laws get abused.”
The law’s mechanism is very similar to how offenders in domestic violence incidents are barred by protective orders from accessing firearms.
A petitioner can file for a one-year protective order preventing someone from having a firearm. A hearing must be scheduled within 14 days. But in certain extreme cases, a petitioner can file for an order without notice to the respondent.
“We’re not against stopping somebody that is in fact dangerous to others,” Gerwig said. “The problem is that this law does not give any due process.”
He said he could see the law being abused by upset spouses, and ex-boyfriends and girlfriends.
“Is it really going to solve the problems? I don’t think so,” he said.
“We don’t grab for a gun if we’re mad at somebody.” — State Sen. Karl Rhoads
Linking strict gun laws to low gun death rates is an “easy premise,” Gerwig said.
He pointed to reports frequently cited by the National Rifle Association that say more guns actually reduce crime. Many of those reports are contested by other researchers.
Gerwig said Hawaii’s cultural difference — the “Aloha spirit” — should be considered in accounting for the state’s low rate of gun deaths.
“Do we have a gun crime every now and then?” he said. “Yes we do. But we don’t have the level of violent crime that we’re seeing in large cities.”
Rhoads, the state senator who supports the extreme risk protection law, agreed that Hawaii benefits from a cultural difference.
“We don’t grab for a gun if we’re mad at somebody,” he said.
The debate surrounding gun laws often devolves into an argument about “good guys with guns versus bad guys,” Rhoads said, but that’s all “nonsense.”
Even with the measures already in place in Hawaii, there are still a lot of guns out there, he said. And minimizing gun violence boils down to having the right attitude and the right protection laws.
And it also helps to be in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, he said, with no neighbors to exert a bad influence.
For instance, California has an A rating from the Giffords Law Center, but borders Nevada and Arizona, which are rated D and F, respectively.
“There are not really any simple solutions, but there are certain things that stack the deck in your favor,” Rhoads said. “And we have them.”
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