When it comes to gun violence, Hawaii is one of the safest places in the U.S. The state has among the lowest number of registered guns and gun deaths per capita, and some of the nation’s toughest gun laws.

But some of that could soon change.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling this summer in a New York case that will have implications for Hawaii and the rest of the U.S. It deals with a person’s right to carry a gun outside the home. A Hawaii case with similar issues is on appeal to the high court as well, and the Hawaii case also could help shape national gun laws, depending on what happens in New York.

These cases come at a time when the nation is going through what seems a grim, perennial ritual: a person with an assault rifle murders and wounds a dozen or more people in a public space like a school; politicians and the public call for greater gun controls; gun enthusiasts point to their fundamental right to own guns under the U.S. Constitution. And nothing changes.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue an opinion this summer that could force Hawaii to change the way it regulates permits to carry guns outside the home. AP/2016

Despite recent incidents like last month’s shooting in Uvalde, Texas, where a gunman killed 19 elementary school students and two of their teachers, the gun enthusiasts are winning, at least in court where it counts.

In 2008, the Supreme Court started issuing what would be a series of landmark decisions establishing the personal right to own a gun, and since then the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court has gotten only more conservative.

Alan Beck, a California lawyer fighting Hawaii’s restrictive gun laws, hopes the win streak continues.

If the court sides with the gun advocates in the New York case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen, Beck said, it’s likely the justices will put the Hawaii case to rest with a short document called a per curiam decision. The outcome would still be a win for his client, George Young, a Big Island resident challenging Hawaii laws governing gun carry permits.

Although Hawaii law allows people to obtain permits to carry guns outside the home, the state lets county police chiefs decide who can get permits to carry a gun openly or concealed. And none has ever been granted, at least in the nearly 10 years that Young’s case has been going through the courts, Young asserts. Young has sued Hawaii state and county officials alleging the law violates his Second Amendment right.

Young wants to carry a handgun, he does not have a preference on whether it’s concealed or open,” said Beck.

But even if Young wins, that’s not likely to be the end of the story. Hawaii is almost certain to respond with another law in response. The state did something similar just last week, when Hawaii Gov. David Ige signed into law a bill restoring gun restrictions that a federal court had struck down in another case.

Oxybenzone Hearing Capitol Chair Rep Chris Lee listens to lively testimony. 31 jan 2017
State Sen. Chris Lee says he’s preparing to shore up Hawaii’s gun restrictions if courts strike them down. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

The new law requires in-person inspection of three categories of guns that county police chiefs have identified as particular threats to public safety: guns that don’t have serial numbers, known as ghost guns, guns brought to Hawaii from out of state and guns transferred between private individuals.

“In the wake of the tragic mass shootings in Uvalde Texas, Tulsa Oklahoma and in so many other cities across the U.S., and a week after a shooting injured four in Honolulu – it is more important than ever that the State of Hawaiʻi takes action against gun violence,” Ige said in a statement. “Hawaiʻi has one of the lowest rates of gun violence in America, and this new law is key in helping law enforcement keep our communities safe.”

And gun control advocates like Hawaii Sen. Chris Lee are already working on legislation that would further tweak Hawaii’s laws to withstand any new constitutional challenges.

If the court strikes down Hawaii’s carry laws, for instance, Lee proposes to require anyone obtaining a permit to carry a gun to undergo the same weapons training as law enforcement officers. It’s analogous to making sure someone knows how to drive a car before they get a driver’s license, Lee said.

“‘They are carrying a weapon into public places where they could easily kill people around them, either intentionally or unintentionally,” Lee said.

Is Hawaii Different?

If there’s one thing that gun control advocates and gun enthusiasts can agree on, it’s that Hawaii is culturally different from much of the U.S. And that makes the gun culture here different, as well.

“Hawaii’s very different than the mainland, especially in the way that we treat each other, and the way we share aloha and respect,” Lee said. “And in this case, people aren’t going to be prone to walk around with an AR15 for the sake of intimidating their neighbors because they have their own inferiority complex.”

Timothy Tenney, a retired Honolulu Police Department detective and gun hobbyist, agreed.

“They don’t want to carry guns around to be punks,” Tenney said. “You’re not going to get that out of the typical Hawaii gun enthusiast.”

But that’s one of the few things Lee and Tenney would seem to agree on.

Tenney echoes others who oppose tight gun control laws, arguing that such laws prevent only law-abiding citizens from carrying guns. Criminals will still carry guns, he says.

“The bottom line is criminals are still going to carry guns.” — Retired Honolulu police officer Timothy Tenney

And anecdotal evidence at least supports his assertion.

In just about any given week, there are multiple reports of crimes involving guns. For example, in the past two weeks alone, according to news reports, a man threatened four women with a gun in Wahiawa, a shoplifter threatened a Walmart employee with a gun in Pearl City, a road rage incident involved a gun in Waianae, there were random gun firings in Kailua and Tantalus, and a shooting in Waikiki. On the Big Island, a man was charged with kidnapping and assault along with firearms offense when police found several “ghost guns” in his possession.

All of this despite laws that effectively prohibit ordinary citizens from obtaining permits to carry guns outside their homes.

“The bottom line is criminals are still going to carry guns,” said Tenney.

He noted the law allows a narrow exception: people can transport a gun to a firing range, police station or gunsmith, but only in a locked box and in the trunk of their car.

Still, while anecdotal data shows guns to be ubiquitous, statistics show something else. According to the most recent data from the CDC, Hawaii has the nation’s lowest rate of gun deaths per 100,000 people — 3.4 per 100,000 population compared to 28.6 gun-related deaths per 100,000 population in Mississippi.

Hawaii also generally has relatively few guns. According to a Rand study looking at 2007-2016, about 8% of households in Hawaii owned a gun; this compared to 18% in California, which is also known for strict gun laws. Wyoming led the nation with 59% of households owning at least one gun.

While such data show merely a correlation between tight gun laws, low ownership rates and low death rates, Lee says there’s a causal relationship as well. To underscore this, he pointed to other nations with strict gun laws.

“Their rates of gun violence are near zero compared to the United States,” he said.

CDC Data Guns Map
The latest data from the CDC shows Hawaii has the nation’s lowest rate of death due to guns. CDC/SCREENSHOT/2022

State and local gun laws also can affect the way law enforcement officers approach their jobs. Last week, at Honolulu’s Prince Jonah Kuhio Federal Building, agents with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives held an all-day seminar to discuss laws governing when police officers can use deadly force.

Although the briefings focused on laws and simulations, Paul Massock, deputy chief of the bureau’s special operations division in Washington, D.C., took time to discuss gun carry laws and how they affect the way officers might react to situations.

For example, Massock said, when he was an agent in Indianapolis, Indiana, the state’s “shall-issue” gun laws meant most people who wanted a gun could get one along with a permit to carry. So agents could not assume anything just because someone was carrying a gun.

But Oakland, California’s strict carry laws, similar to Hawaii’s, meant anyone carrying a gun in public was probably committing a crime simply by carrying a weapon. Agents would tend to approach such suspects with guns drawn, he said.

“If it’s a crime to carry a gun in and of itself and they’re carrying a gun, do you think they’re engaging in another illegal activity?” he said.

At the same time, Massock said, how much gun violence there is in a community depends on factors beyond gun laws, including the question: “Within the culture or society, how is interpersonal violence viewed?”

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