Hawaii has long had some of the lowest rates of gun ownership — and gun violence — in the nation. With thousands more getting licenses to carry, will that change?
As constituents filed into a public safety town hall at Honouliuli Middle School last week, they were handed printed copies of applications to carry concealed firearms downloaded from the Honolulu Police Department’s website.
The town hall on Wednesday, organized by state Rep. Diamond Garcia, who represents parts of Varona Village, Ewa and Kapolei, was intended to discuss rising crime rates on West Oahu, as well as address questions from residents curious about how to obtain licenses to carry.
“I think the state would be safer in fact if we had responsible gun owners who knew how to handle their weapon and understood the responsibility that comes with gun ownership,” Garcia said. “What we should do is not pass more laws restricting gun rights but pass more laws making those penalties tougher for those who are using firearms illegally.”
Since a 2022 Supreme Court ruling known as the Bruen decision expanded gun owners’ rights to carry firearms, 1,543 people on Oahu have applied for licenses to carry and 1,156 have been approved, according to the Honolulu Police Department. Many are still curious.
Garcia said he’s received dozens of calls and messages on social media from constituents who want to know more about the license to carry process.
To obtain a concealed or open carry license, applicants must complete a checklist of items, which includes documentation that they have completed firearms training and passed a shooting proficiency test within the last 90 days, a four-page license to carry application, signed registration forms for all firearms, a HIPPA medical release, photo identification and a signed release for records from the state’s Adult Mental Health Division. Applicants must also undergo a background check.
But Honolulu Police Cpl. Roland Pagan cautioned those in the audience that carrying a firearm wouldn’t automatically make them safer. Unless you know how to defend yourself properly, there’s always a chance someone could overpower you and use your own weapon on you, he said.
“Although carrying a gun is your right, it’s not always the answer,” he said.
Those interested in carrying their firearms also have to be well aware of Hawaii’s gun laws, which are some of the nation’s strictest.
For example, the state’s “sensitive places” law prohibits firearms in many public locations, including beaches and parks. The National Rifle Association recently filed a friend of the court brief supporting a challenge to the law that is pending in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Pagan gave an example to the audience of a person who’s potentially turned away from an establishment because they are not allowed to bring their gun inside and the dangers that situation could cause.
“You walk back and put the gun in your car,” he said. “Now how many people know you have a gun in your car?”
But it’s difficult to say whether momentum for obtaining gun permits will continue in Hawaii, which has historically had some of the lowest gun ownership rates in the country.
Even though violent crime overall is down on Oahu, according to the Honolulu Police Department, some categories of crime in certain areas are on the rise.
There have been nine murders this year in West Oahu compared with six last year. But Garcia said he’s been noting an increasing unease among members of the public, fueling an interest in gun ownership for defense.
“I think people are realizing that things are getting less and less safe, and they’re exercising their constitutional right to keep and bear arms,” he said after Wednesday’s meeting.
Mississippi had the highest gun death rate of any state in 2021 with 33.9 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In that state, 50% of adults live in a house with a firearm, according to the RAND Corp., a public policy research organization.
By comparison, Hawaii had the second-lowest gun death rate at 4.8 per 100,000, according to the CDC. It also had one of the lowest gun ownership rates at 8%, according to RAND.
But Garcia said he doesn’t believe responsible gun owners are the problem. He believes most crimes are committed by people who obtain guns illegally.
Some residents, though, have expressed concern about having more guns around in their communities.
Rob Branco, who lives in Ewa Beach, said he worries that if more parents or grandparents have licenses to carry, children could get ahold of their firearms by accident.
The issue didn’t apply to him personally, though, because he’d served prison time, he said, and a felony conviction disqualifies anyone from owning a firearm in Hawaii. Plus, he’d already been shot seven times, he said, lifting up his shirt to expose a string of scars on his abdomen.
For Branco’s wife, Imua Branco, the increased interest in guns in Hawaii represents a cultural shift she feels is mimicking other states.
“Whatever’s happening on the mainland, it will eventually trickle down to Hawaii,” she said.
She thought about her parents, who were born and raised in Hawaii, and how they didn’t see guns as part of their daily lives.
“They survived just fine without guns,” she said. “Problems were solved faster and with less violence back then.”
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