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Pearl Harbor Shooting Prompts Closer Look at Hawaii’s Strict Gun Laws

Sarah Richardson, a friend of a Department of Defense employee who works on Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Fires an M4A1 service rifle during the recreational shoot hosted by the Kaneohe Bay Range Training Facility aboard the base. (U.S. Marine Corps Photo By Cpl. Matthew Callahan)
Sarah Richardson, a friend of a Department of Defense employee who works on Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Fires an M4A1 service rifle during the recreational shoot hosted by the Kaneohe Bay Range Training Facility aboard the base. (U.S. Marine Corps Photo By Cpl. Matthew Callahan)

Hawaiian gun deaths are the lowest in the nation, but even Hawaii’s strict gun laws couldn’t prevent the shooting at Pearl Harbor last week.

On Dec. 4 U.S. Navy sailor Gabriel Romero fatally shot two civilians and wounded a third before killing himself at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard in Hawaii. While gun violence of this nature has tragically become commonplace in the U.S. – there was another mass shooting the following day in Florida with three victims – in Hawaii, shootings are much less common.

Hawaii has the lowest rate of gun deaths in the country and some of the strictest gun laws in the U.S. According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in 2017 Hawaii had 2.5 gun deaths per 100,000 people. Massachusetts, the state with the next lowest rate of gun deaths had 3.7, and Alabama and Alaska the states with the highest rate had 22.9 and 24.5, respectively.

Purchasing a gun in Hawaii requires a permit with a 14-day waiting period and a mental health waiver, and permits are denied for those with violent criminal records. Gun owners wishing to bring their guns into the state from elsewhere have to register them within five days of arriving. Hawaii doesn’t honor other states’ permits, and because guns can’t be driven in from other states Hawaii’s strict gun laws aren’t undermined by looser regulations in other areas.

Unfortunately, none of Hawaii’s laws could prevent the Naval Yard shooting. Romero carried out last week’s shooting with his service weapons, an M4 rifle and an M9 pistol. At the time of the shooting Romero faced military criminal proceedings, had taken anger management classes, and reportedly had recent injuries from punching equipment. If Romero had attempted to purchase a gun he would have had to wait the requisite two weeks for the permit, but his recent behavior and his military review would most likely not have disqualified him.

This was also the case for the shooter in Hawaii’s worst mass shooting, which took place 20 years ago. On Nov. 2, 1999, an employee of Xerox Corp. went into the company warehouse and killed seven of his coworkers and wounded one more. The perpetrator used a legally registered 9mm pistol in the attack and had 17 other guns registered to his name, despite being denied a permit several years prior because of an arrest for criminal property damage. At the time of the Xerox shooting Hawaii already had strong gun laws, and lawmakers have cited the shooting as a reason to keep these protections intact.

Hawaii lawmakers have also considered instances of gun violence in other states as motivation to close loopholes. Earlier this year, Hawaii joined 16 other states in passing Act 150 a “red flag law” which “establishes a process by which a law enforcement officer, family or household member, medical professional, educator or colleague may obtain a court order to prevent a person from accessing firearms and ammunition when the person poses a danger of causing bodily injury to oneself or another.” The lawmakers who drafted the bill cited the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting as motivation for the new statute. It takes effect Jan. 1, 2020.

While mass shootings rightfully shock people and grab attention, the reality is that the vast majority of gun deaths in the U.S. are individual suicides, which don’t make the news. Firearm suicides account for roughly half of all suicide deaths. There is evidence that laws like those in place in Hawaii that require a permit to purchase a gun do reduce gun deaths by suicide. Limiting access to firearms is not a comprehensive solution to suicide prevention, but common-sense gun laws can reduce all types of gun deaths.

Hawaii’s gun laws are not perfect and may not work the same way in different places. Looking at the numbers of gun deaths in Hawaii does offer a compelling case for stricter gun laws nationwide. At the same time, acknowledging the instances of gun violence that these laws couldn’t prevent can offer guidance in where the loopholes are and the complexity of comprehensively addressing the problem.

Alexis Chapman

Alexis Chapman is a freelance political consultant and writer. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Cape Institute and currently serves as Grassroots Director of the Hawaii Food Industry Association. She holds a Master of International Studies Degree from the Government Department of the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Sydney, and a Bachelor’s in Philosophy from Green Mountain College. Chapman specializes in policy analysis, strategic policy analysis, and food legislation at the local, state, national, and international level. She has worked in Australia, West Africa, and around the U.S. in New England, Texas, and Hawaii.

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