LIHUE — Roy Saito is the owner of Gold-Express Inc., where he deals in everything from precious metals to antique war memorabilia.
An avid gun enthusiast, Saito is wary of some of the new laws passed this year that further tightened restrictions on gun owners in Hawaii, specifically, a recent measure allowing police to temporarily confiscate firearms from people who are deemed by a judge to be a danger to themselves or to others.
“I can see the government taking that too far to the extreme,” he said of Act 150, signed by Gov. David Ige in June. “The law needs to have a due-process clause in it. You cannot just come to someone’s house and confiscate based on a rumor.”
Hawaii is among the dozen states that have approved some version of a “red-flag law” since the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
“I can’t figure out the justification for passing the law in the first place,” he said, noting that the law was not preceded by a local increase in firearm-related violence or public outcry for stricter gun control.
In the wake of two deadly mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio that rocked the nation last weekend, locals and lawmakers and law-enforcement officials talked with TGI about gun control and whether tougher laws are needed.
Bronson Bautista, owner of Armory Kauai, one of the island’s few gun shops, sells a product that he said is already heavily regulated and highly scrutinized.
Bautista said the vast majority of people “don’t understand the first thing about guns,” and state lawmakers are no exception.
“They try to restrict us from owning things they don’t understand,” he said, using as an example a 2017 bill that would have made it legal for hunters in Hawaii to use silencers on their guns.
The bill failed, Bautista said, in part because legislators voted based on “too much perception of what goes on in the movies.”
“As a hunter, you can use a tool that can make you much more efficient,” he said, explaining why noise supressors would be useful to hunters, who help keep several animal populations on Kauai in check. “Nobody wants to say they miss, but when you do, you make so much noise you scare away any other game in the area.”
Bautista said Hawaii’s strict gun laws can place difficulties on business owners, who sometimes struggle to attract new customers who may give up in the face of the time-consuming permit application and registration processes.
“From a retail standpoint it’s hard,” he said. “It’s tough on small businesses for sure.”
Bautista said the key to preventing gun violence has more to do with mental health than legislation, and attributed the lack of gun violence on Kauai to the familial sense of community felt by the people who grow up on the island, something he believes is missing from many places elsewhere in the country.
“They have a people problem,” he said. “People definitely treat people different here than on the mainland.”
Ultimately, Bautista concluded, “No law is going to make us safe.”
The state’s gun laws rank among the strongest in the nation. The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, an organization that publishes annual nationwide reports on gun control, gave Hawaii’s gun laws an A- rating, among the best in the country.
Hawaii had fewer gun deaths per capita than any other state in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and incidents of gun violence are particularly low on Kauai.
A report published in January by the state attorney general’s office showed that firearms were used in just 8% of all robberies on Kauai in 2017. Assaults involving firearms were even more rare, at just 4.4%.
Those figures are roughly half of statewide averages, and a fraction of rates seen in the rest of the United States. Nationwide data collected by the FBI show that, in 2011, firearms were used in 41% of robberies and 21% of aggravated assaults.
In an interview Friday, state Senate President Ron Kouchi called Hawaii’s gun laws “some of the toughest in the country,” but attributed part of the county’s low gun-related-crime rates to the attitude and culture of the people.
“In Kauai, we have an incredible amount of responsible gun owners,” he said, pointing to two large segments of the island’s population that are known for being knowledgeable about weapons and serious about gun safety — hunters and military veterans.
Kouchi said the challenge for legislators is protecting the rights of hunters who use guns to feed their families and pay the bills, while maintaining public safety by keeping laws in place that allow law enforcement to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.
“Finding that balance is always the tricky part,” he said.
State Rep. James Tokioka said Thursday that he couldn’t think of any measures he would like to see added to the state’s gun laws, which he described as the strictest, “and, in my opinion, the most reasonable” in the nation.
Tokioka said he supported Hawaii’s new red-flag law, preventing potentially dangerous gun owners from accessing their firearms.
“I’m sure some people think that’s too much,” he said, and emphasized the guns would be confiscated on a temporary basis. The act calls for judges to issue a one-year “gun-violence protective order,” which Tokioka called “a cooling-off period,” that was “the whole purpose of the bill.”
Tokioka said firearms are less of a concern on Kauai than elsewhere, partly because gun owners here are mostly “hunters who use them to provide food for their families.”
“On Kauai, you rarely hear them tooting the horn because it’s a small community and you probably know that person,” he said.
Saito remains relatively positive about state and county gun regulations in general. He has no problem with basic background checks, which he called “good, common sense,” but Saito did point out an inconsistency in the firearms-registration process he would like to see changed.
“The way they do it here is terrible,” he said, explaining that the permit required by state law to purchase a rifle or a shotgun has to be renewed every year, while the same permit for handguns never expires.
According to Saito, the process is time-consuming and expensive for gun enthusiasts and vendors like himself, who frequently purchase long guns.
Roy Asher has been with the Kauai Police Department longer than any other officer on the force. He is one of four assistant chiefs, and heads up the department’s Administrative Services Bureau.
Because of Hawaii’s geography and remote location, Asher explained, the KPD doesn’t have to deal with a lot of illegal firearms smuggling, a major concern for many mainland law-enforcement agencies, particularly those tasked with monitoring hundreds of miles of land borders with states that may have looser gun regulations.
Instead, Asher said, the most problematic gun-control issues on Kauai stem from legally-registered gun owners who either lack proficiency or fail to maintain control over their weapons.
Before buying a gun, Kauai residents have to take a firearms-safety course and apply for a permit to acquire a gun, followed by a two-week “cooling-off period.” During that time, the KPD runs a background check on the applicant. Asher said some of the common disqualifiers are prior felony convictions, a history of mental health issues and medical-marijuana-card registrations.
Once the permit is approved and the new weapon is purchased, the new gun owner must return to the police department and register the serial number before the firearm is considered legal.
“From that point on, you’re on your own,” Asher said.
The registration process is appropriate and effective, in Asher’s opinion, but, he said, “you don’t need a legally-registered gun to commit a crime.”
When asked what could make gun regulations more effective, he said he would like to see legislation establishing rules for firearm proficiency — “Can you handle it?” — and retention — “Can you keep it secure?”
Asher also addressed the right-to-carry issue. For concealed and open-carry permits, Hawaii is a “may-issue” state, meaning county police chiefs can issue the permits on a discretionary basis. Asher said Kauai residents “can certainly try” to get either permit, although he has seen only two applications granted in his 30-plus years with the KPD.
The last instance was about three years ago, Asher said, adding that the permit was issued for a limited time to one person who “showed credible evidence and documentation that their life was being threatened.”