HILO — Gun laws in Hawaii, already among the strictest in the nation, could be getting tougher.
State legislators have introduced four gun control bills this session, ranging from requiring gun permits to be renewed annually to a ban on certain firearms.
Automatic weapons are already banned in the state, but semi-automatic assault rifles, including the types of guns used in the Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., mass shootings, would also be prohibited under Senate Bill 219.
Introduced by Democratic state Sen. Les Ihara, the bill would make possession a class C felony and allow for extended sentences if used in a crime.
The bill is the most extensive of any of the proposals, and it’s not likely to get much traction.
Ihara, who represents Oahu’s 10th District, introduced it on behalf of a constituent but is not supportive of the proposal, according to his staff. He’s the bill’s only sponsor.
Senate Bill 69 would allocate $100,000 for a gun buy-back program.
The bill, introduced by Democratic state Sen. Will Espero, says there are more than 1 million privately owned guns in the state, and that reducing that number would reduce the risk of gun violence.
The program would be voluntary; it’s unclear how much compensation would be offered.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funded the last gun buy-back program in the state in 1999. About $22,880 was allocated with the goal of buying 455 guns. It’s unclear how many guns were purchased.
Espero, who represents Oahu’s 19th District, didn’t return a request for comment.
State Sen. Josh Green, D-Kona, Ka‘u, is a co-sponsor.
“I think it’s a good approach nationally,” he said. “My personal focus will be on the mental health aspect.”
In an email, Maj. Samuel Thomas with the Hawaii Police Department said fewer guns could lead to less violence.
“Without having all the details, in general, our department would be supportive (of a gun buy-back program), more so in that these types of programs are voluntary on the part of the owners who sell these weapons,” he said.
Senate Bill 36 would require gun owners to register their firearm annually and complete a firearms course every two years.
House Bill 30 would prohibit the sale of ammunition to anyone who can’t prove they have a registered firearm.
Hawaii Rifle Association President Harvey Gerwig called the bill “ridiculous.”
“It’s a useless piece of legislation to make somebody feel good, but it doesn’t help anything,” he said.
Not all gun-related bills are seeking to expand control efforts.
Republican state Sen. Sam Slom has introduced legislation that would repeal the state’s 10-round capacity limit, make it easier to receive a concealed weapons permit, allow residents to openly carry a firearm with a permit, and exempt firearms instructors certified by the National Rifle Association from liability if someone is shot during a firearm training course.
Slom, who represents Oahu’s 9th District, said he has sponsored the bills almost every year. He believes the state’s gun laws go too far in some areas and limit the ability of people to defend themselves.
“Our whole argument has been all along, why penalize the 99 percent of people that are good, lawful, responsible gun owners?” Slom said.
In Hawaii, police chiefs may only issue a concealed weapons permit in an “exceptionable case” when life or property is at risk.
Slom’s bill would make issuing a permit mandatory if conditions are met, including completion of a training course and knowledge of gun laws. An applicant also must not have committed certain offenses.
Another bill would allow residents to receive a permit to carry a gun in the open under similar conditions.
Slom also said the capacity limit on handguns needs to be eliminated for personal safety.
“If you have a home invasion … you are going to want the extra protection,” he said.
The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gives Hawaii a “B” rating for its existing gun laws, and ranks it fifth out of the 50 states.
The group couldn’t be immediately reached for comment on the new legislation.
Gun owners in the state must receive a permit and go through an education course.
Police check permit applicants for felonies or violent crime convictions. A doctor’s clearance is needed for a permit to be granted to anyone diagnosed with drug or alcohol addiction or who has a mental health disorder.
Guns may only be transported from home to a shooting range. They also cannot be loaded and must be in a secured box while being transported.
Ilan Kariv, owner of North Pacific Firearms in Hilo, said he is supportive of the state’s registration and training requirements and doesn’t mind seeing them expanded.
“It gives us the peace of mind that we can sell a firearm knowing that he’s OK to own one, possess one and shoot it responsibly,” he said.
But Kariv said he is troubled by the bill to ban semi-automatic assault firearms, including guns that he sells at his store, even if it doesn’t go far in the Legislature.
“It’s a kind of proposed legislation that infringes on our Second Amendment,” he said.
Kariv said assault rifles are popular for recreational use and he doesn’t see them as a public safety risk here.
“In the state of Hawaii, along with the spirit of aloha and strong community ties, people are very responsible when it comes to using firearms and their intent,” he said.
Thomas said police do come across these weapons when carrying out raids for illegal drugs.
“Obviously, persons who possess/distribute illicit drugs should not have access to any firearms and for that reason alone, less assault weapons will certainly add to the safety of our island community,” he wrote.
Josh Stueber, owner of Stueb’s Guns & Ammo in Hilo, and Kariv both said the state should relax its laws on concealed weapons.
“Responsible, sane citizens should be allowed to carry,” Stueber said.