In the waning days of a momentous session for conservatives, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a short order that was a big win for Hawaii gun rights advocates.

Known as a grant, vacate and remand, or GVR, order, the two-sentence statement issued on Thursday struck down a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit that had supported Hawaii laws that had been used to generally deny people the right to carry guns outside the home, with few exceptions.

The high court essentially told the San Francisco-based appellate court: See what the Supreme Court just said in a similar case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Assn., Inc. v. Bruen, and get it right this time.

Add getting it right under Bruen generally means issuing permits to carry guns.

The U.S. Supreme Court last week struck down a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit that backed up Hawaii’s policy of generally denying permits for people to carry guns outside the home. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

While not a full-fledged opinion, the order was still a win for Big Island resident George Young, who has been fighting court battles for nearly a decade, and his attorney, Alan Beck.

“A win is a win,” Beck said. “The Supreme Court granted cert, vacated the 9th Circuit and remanded the case. We have a win before the U.S. Supreme Court.”

The loosening of Hawaii’s gun control laws comes as the U.S. Congress has taken steps to tighten laws nationally. In June, lawmakers passed a measure called the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act in response to mass shootings in Texas and New York. In effect, while the U.S. Supreme Court went in one direction, loosening gun laws, Congress went in the other.

While the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act was hailed as historic legislation that would save thousands of lives, the act is likely to have limited impact on Hawaii because the state already has among the nation’s strictest gun laws. There was little for Congress to tighten.

For example, one of the key provisions of the federal law requires expanded background checks for gun buyers who are under 21 years old. But that means little in Hawaii because people under 21 generally can’t get gun permits anyway, under state law.

Another issue involves so-called “red flag laws,” which lets people get court orders to take guns from people deemed to be threats to others or themselves.

While the federal law provides some funding to help support red flag programs, it’s not clear that Hawaii would qualify, said Hawaii Sen. Karl Rhoads, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who was the lead author of Hawaii’s red flag law.

The issue is that Hawaii’s law might have to comport with federal red flag law criteria – which might be looser than Hawaii’s law – for Hawaii to qualify for money, Rhoads said.

“I think it’s fair to say the Supreme Court decision will have a greater effect than the federal legislation,” Rhoads said.

Lawyer: Hawaii Police Chiefs’ Conduct Is Unconstitutional

In that context, the biggest question for now is when Hawaii will start issuing ordinary citizens permits to carry guns.

“Police chiefs could start issuing permits now if they wanted to,” said Todd Yukutake, director of the Hawaii Firearms Coalition, a gun rights advocacy organization.

Yukutake noted that Hawaii law now allows police chiefs to issue permits for people to carry guns concealed or unconcealed. The problem for gun owners is that the chiefs also have exercised discretion to deny the permit requests unless the applicants showed they had a special need to carry a gun.

“There’s been almost zero carry permits issued for civilians in the past 20 years,” Yukutake said.

And it’s that practice that the high court struck down, said Beck, the gun rights attorney.

“Are they going to drag this out to the bitter end is my question, because it’s done,” Beck said. “At this point they’re on notice that their conduct is unconstitutional.”

Michelle Yu, a spokeswoman for the Honolulu Police Department, says HPD is currently reviewing the ruling and talking with the city attorney and other county police departments about what to do.

“The HPD’s firearms permitting procedures are unchanged at this time but are being evaluated in light of the ruling,” she said.

Chair Judiciary Karl Rhoads during mail in ballot hearing held in room 016 at the Capitol.
Sen. Karl Rhoads predicts the U.S. Supreme Court will eventually overturn recent decisions expanding gun ownership rights to individuals. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Hawaii lawmakers are also digesting the opinion and planning to respond.

Rhoads, who is a lawyer, said the measure appears to apply to handguns; however, he envisions it extending to long guns, as well, which could lead to people getting unconcealed carry permits for the type of semi-automatic rifles with large magazines often used in school shootings.

“I don’t think it’s a stretch that you could end up having 100-round M16s being carried openly down Bishop Street,” Rhoads said. “It is just a horrible precedent.”

At the same time, Rhoads said, the Supreme Court has not yet said state and local governments can’t regulate guns at all.

“The Bruen case doesn’t say we can’t regulate,” he said. “It’s not the Wild Wild West.”

Rhoads’ fellow lawmaker, Sen. Chris Lee, said it makes sense in light of Bruen to impose more rigorous training requirements on people seeking permits to own guns.

But Lee noted such a change will require legislation, which could not even be introduced until the next legislative session, which begins in January.

Rhoads said lawmakers could also impose stronger regulations for buying ammunition, so that only a person licensed to own a particular type of firearm could buy the type of bullets used for the firearm.

“Why should you be able to go into a gun store and buy ammo for a gun that’s stolen?” he said.

The biggest hope of gun control advocates such as Rhoads is that the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn a 2008 decision called District of Columbia v. Heller, which for the first time established that the Second Amendment protected an individual’s right to own a gun. The amendment previously had been understood to protect the right to arm state militias.

The Heller decision and a similar case, McDonald v. City of Chicago, significantly limited the extent to which governments can impose gun control laws. He predicted the court will eventually overturn Heller and McDonald as it recently overturned Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationally.

“At some point, this is going to be reversed,” he said.

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