HONOLULU — On a dizzying day for people on both sides of America’s gun-control debate, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a New York state law that required residents to provide justification for carrying a concealed handgun, a ruling that could have profound impact in Hawaii, home to some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country.
Also on Thursday, the U.S. Senate, in a rare bipartisan effort, passed its first major gun-control bill dating back to the 1994 assault-weapon ban. Fifteen Republicans, more than needed to avoid a filibuster, voted in favor of the measure, which ultimately passed on a 65-34 vote. The bill prohibits gun ownership for those convicted of domestic violence or serious crimes as a juvenile, implements new protocols for conducting background checks, provides $750 million to help states with red-flag and other intervention program, among other provisions.
The high court’s 6-3 decision on New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen was met with concern by local lawmakers and law enforcement agencies.
The court ruled that Second Amendment rights extend outside the home. In the majority opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, “The constitutional right to bear arms in public for self-defense is not ‘a second-class right, subject to an entirely different body of rules than the other Bill of Rights guarantees. We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need.”
New York and Hawaii are among seven states that require residents to establish a verifiable cause or need to carry a concealed gun. Now, states will assume the burden of proving that their restrictions are, in Thomas’s words, “part of the historical tradition that delimits the outer bounds of the right to keep and bear arms.”
“It’s a disaster,” said state Sen. Karl Rhoads. “It moves us in the wrong direction.”
Rhoads noted that Hawaii routinely reports the lowest rates of gun violence and murder nationally, a fact he directly connects to the state having some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country.
Rhoads said he still needs to carefully examine the 135-page decision to understand the specific implications it has for Hawaii but said the Legislature could act to maintain the state’s ability to keep guns out of the wrong hands.
“It puts more pressure on us to do something, not specifically related to concealed carry but other ways of shoring up our gun laws,” he said.
Such measures could include new requirements for ammunitions purchases to ensure that purchases match the weapons registered to the customer or laws that take advantage of emerging “smart gun” technology that prevents the use of a weapon except by a registered user.
The state Department of the Attorney General issued a statement on Thursday taking issue with the court’s ruling.
“We profoundly disagree with this decision,” the statement read. “We will carefully examine this decision and consider if it will affect our laws, which were not at issue in the Supreme Court case today.”
DAG echoed Rhoads’ points regarding Hawaii’s stringent gun regulation and its low gun-violence rate.
“Many of these laws can be traced back to the days before Hawaii became a State, and some of them date back to the days of the Kingdom of Hawaii,” the statement read. “It is because of this history of reasonable gun regulation that Hawaii consistently ranks as one of the States with the lowest gun violence rates in the nation.”
DAG said it was committed to protecting the safety of the community and working with the Legislature, counties, police and community groups in response to the ruling.
“Common-sense firearm regulation remains critically important,” DAG stated. “The recent shootings in Buffalo, New York, in Uvalde, Texas, and Thomas Square in Honolulu, demonstrate the clear need for reasonable firearm regulations. Today’s decision is in tension with those needs.
The Honolulu Police Department also responded to Thursday’s ruling with a brief statement: “We are currently reviewing the ruling and are in discussion with the other county police departments. The HPD’s firearms permitting procedures are unchanged at this time but will be evaluated in light of the ruling.”
Greater clarity could come with a Supreme Court ruling on Young v. Hawaii, which has been on hold pending the NYSRPA v. Bruen decision. The case involves the state’s denial of a concealed-carry permit to a Hawaii Island resident who had applied on the basis of self-defense. A Ninth Circuit Court panel sided with the state, prompting the man’s lawyer to appeal the Supreme Court. As the petition states, Young v. Hawaii is “identical” in substance to NYSRPA v. Bruen.
Following Thursday’s ruling, supporters of less restrictive concealed-carry laws are optimistic about a second, confirmatory decision.
“This is good news,” said Maui gun owner Chase C. “Those of us who seek to maintain firearms rights kind of didn’t expect it to go this way.”
Chase C. requested that his last name not be fully cited due to previous harassment he said he received for his earlier public statements about gun laws in Hawaii.
He said he and other law-abiding gun owners share the same essential goal that gun-control advocates have—a safer community free of gun violence. To him, open, good-faith discussion of firearms rights; common-sense regulations that include allowance of concealed carry for self-defense purposes; and education and training on the rights and responsibilities of gun ownership and use are the best way to achieve that goal.
“Being able to carry a firearm allows you to defend yourself and do so in the highest degree, with the full understanding of what that actually means,” he said.
Chase C. agreed that the state’s gun laws, while overly restrictive, have helped to minimize gun violence but argued that allowing concealed carry of firearms would further deter criminals without introducing changing the responsible use and ownership of firearms by already law-abiding gun owners.
“People who already follow all the rules and processes are not going to suddenly start shooting people or committing crimes,” he said.
Michael Tsai covers local and state politics for Spectrum News Hawaii.