Hawaii lawmakers want to set up a new commission to study and address gun violence and violent crimes but its meetings would be closed to the public and it wouldn’t have to release its records.

In the wake of the January incident on Hibiscus Drive that killed two Honolulu police officers and torched several Diamond Head homes, legislators have been thinking about possible ways to bring together law enforcement and mental health agencies to share information and resources to prevent such incidents, said state Rep. Chris Lee, a main sponsor of House Bill 2744.

“This commission would put them all at the same table,” he said. Hopefully, that would lead to better responses and save lives, he added.

Rep Chris Lee speaks with support from HPD Chief Susan Ballard along with first responders from the police department and Honolulu Emergency Medical Services ask state lawmakers to pass four key gun violence prevention bills that would have prevented the Hibiscus Drive shootings near the Capitol.
Rep. Chris Lee, seen here with HPD Chief Susan Ballard, has asked state lawmakers to pass bills to prevent gun violence in response to recent shootings. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The members of the commission would consist mostly of government officials and academics, including the chief justice of Hawaii’s Supreme Court, the state’s health and public safety directors, the Hawaii State Hospital administrator and University of Hawaii deans.

The purpose of this group is to take the “core” of the law enforcement and mental health experts to make recommendations that can ultimately result in new policies and systems, Lee said.

However, the public would not be clued into the commission’s work as the bill seeks to make it exempt from the state’s open records and meetings law “to protect the sensitive nature of relevant data and information,” according to the bill.

“If we’re trying to create laws that are going to stop mass shootings and deter criminals, we don’t want to open up the discussion about where our vulnerabilities are to the public,” Lee said.

That provision has received some pushback as the bill moved forward last week in the Senate.

The commission should not be exempt from the open meetings law entirely, said Brian Black, executive director of The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest.

“It’s a policymaking board that is permanent and it seems as though it would be doing things where the public would be interested and the commission would benefit from public participation,” he said.

HPD Chief of Police Susan Ballard at the police commission meeting.
HPD Chief Susan Ballard says gun violence in Honolulu has been on the rise since middle of last year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Gun advocates at a Senate committee hearing criticized the commission’s membership for being one-sided and not including any pro-Second Amendment rights groups.

In response, Sen. Glenn Wakai added two more members into the mix as an amendment — one representative from an anti-gun group and another from a pro-gun group.

Todd Yukutake, director of the Hawaii Firearms Coalition, said he was opposed to the commission being called the “Gun Violence and Violent Crimes Commission” when gun violence is only a portion of violent crimes occurring in the state.

“Guns can be used to prevent crimes, too,” he said. “I don’t think that would be seen by this commission.”

Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard said the department supports the commission.

“If we can reduce gun violence, then obviously we’re going to support it,” she said.

HPD has been seeing gun violence on the rise since midway through last year, especially during the last three months of 2019, she said. Some of the most common types of crimes observed are terroristic threats and robberies.

In addition to increasing police presence and visibility, the department has been supporting legislation to push for more gun control, she said.

“We’re hoping that by closing some of the loopholes in our gun laws, we can have better gun control,” she said.

Closing Gun Loopholes

One of the loopholes that Ballard is referring to is what are known as “ghost guns,” which are firearms assembled from parts without any identifying markings or serial numbers.

Two of the officer-involved shootings that happened last year involved ghost guns with no serial numbers, she said.

Contact Key Lawmakers

A second part of HB 2744 seeks to ban the manufacture or purchase of parts for the purpose of assembling such guns with no serial numbers.

People are commonly building guns these days with 3D printers and there is evidence that self-made weapons are being used in crimes, said Lee. These weapons give criminals the ability to murder someone that’s “fundamentally untraceable,” he said.

However, gun groups are taking issue with the bill’s vague wording, saying it would criminalize just about any object that could be used to make a homemade gun.

“This legislation would include any item that may be used to make a firearm receiver, such as a block of aluminum, a block of plastic, or even a shovel,” Yukutake of the Hawaii Firearms Coalition wrote in his testimony.

Lee said the legislation is not intended to stop people from building their own guns. It’s merely intended so that the receivers of the guns must have serial numbers on them so that they can be traced and accounted for.

“It’s just a common sense step to make sure that these kinds of guns aren’t going to end up in the wrong hands,” he said.

After clearing the House last month, the bill is now working its way through the Senate. It passed the Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs Committee last week and is expected to be heard by the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Karl Rhoads, next.

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