Why the US Gun Violence Epidemic Hasn’t Reached Hawaii

You don't have to look to other countries for evidence that gun control actually works.
A police officer inspects a gun.
A police officer in Lihue, Hawaii, inspects a gun in 2015. Photo by AP Photo/The Garden Island, Dennis Fujimoto

A bare two weeks after a series of horrific mass shootings made the U.S. pay attention yet again to gun violence—and inspired even some Republicans to issue vague statements about doing something about the problem—Donald Trump has reportedly been convinced by the NRA to turn away from gun control. That likely means even extremely popular, minor measures like expanding background checks are dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled Senate. The federal government, yet again, has decided to do nothing about either mass shootings or the broader problem of gun deaths, which are depressingly common in the U.S. One study from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington found that the gun death rate in the U.S. was 10.6 per 100,000 people in 2016, much higher than other wealthy nations like Canada (2.1) or Australia (1.0).


Gun control advocates sometimes ask why the U.S. can't be more like those countries—Australia, after a particularly traumatic mass shooting in 1996, restricted firearm access and confiscated some 650,000 guns. Its gun death rate, which encompasses homicides as well as suicides and accidents, subsequently went way down. But Americans don't have to look abroad to find success stories like that. Instead, they can ask: Why can't the U.S. as a whole be more like Hawaii?

Gun death rates vary extremely widely from state to state. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) statistics from 2017, the latest year for which we have data, show that Alaska had a gun death rate of 24.5 per 100,000 people, followed closely by Alabama (22.9) and Montana (22.5), all right around twice the national average. At the bottom of the list is Massachusetts (3.7), and Hawaii, which had just 2.5 gun fatalities per 100,000 people. That puts it about on par with France, which had a gun death rate of 2.7 in 2016 according to the IHME study, which used slightly different methodology than the CDC. So what is Hawaii doing right?

The state hasn't gotten rid of its guns: One recent Hawaii Legislative Reference Bureau study roughly estimated that there were 2 million guns on the islands, which have a population of just 1.4 million. "There is definitely a very strong hunting culture," said Karl Rhoads, a Hawaii state senator who has been active for years on gun control. "There’s definitely a significant subculture who are collectors."


But Rhoads noted that even in Honolulu's worst neighborhoods—some of which he represents—there's something of a cultural prohibition on using firearms. He pointed to a recent incident at a Louisiana Walmart where two men escalated an argument by drawing handguns on each other, causing a panic. "You just never hear of that happening in Hawaii. People get into fights, they knife each other, but there’s not this automatic grab for a (gun)," he said. "You get mad at someone, you don’t pull a gun on them." There's evidence for that claim, which has also been made by other observers: While Hawaii's violent crime rate of about 250 crimes per 100,000 people was lower than the U.S. average, according to FBI data, it's not an outlier like its gun death rate. Hawaii's crime rate is about on par with Illinois and Kentucky, both of which had much worse gun death rates in 2017, at 12.1 and 16.2, respectively.

It may be impossible to export that attitude to mainland states with high gun homicide rates, but experts also point to the state's tough-on-guns legislation. Like several other blue states, Hawaii has adopted rules that have been found to correlate with a reduction in gun deaths. According to the Giffords Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which tracks state regulations, Hawaii mandates all gun owners obtain licenses and restricts people under restraining orders or who have been convicted of any domestic violence offense from owning a firearm. The state also regulates ammunition sales and bans assault pistols.*


Michael Siegel, a public health researcher at Boston University who has studied gun fatalities, pointed to the state's background check requirement and its focus on keeping guns away from people who might misuse them. "Hawaii is really a model for the nation in terms of putting together a set of firearm laws that work together to try to keep firearms out of hands of people who are at the greatest risk," he said.

Hawaii's gun ownership laws have been in place for a long time. A 2005 article in the University of Chicago Legal Forum singled out a 1981 law that represented "a significant one-time shift in the state's system of regulating firearms." For the first time, the acquisition of any gun required a permit (previously only handguns required permits), and the permitting process involved being fingerprinted and allowing the local chief of police to look at your mental health records. People who committed violent crimes were barred from owning guns, as was anyone who had been admitted to a psychiatric facility or is under treatment for "significant behavioral, emotional, or mental disorders." A 10-day waiting period on permits was also imposed.

Restricting access to guns on mental health grounds remains controversial, with critics arguing that these measures stigmatize people with mental illnesses, who are more likely to be the targets of violence than its perpetrators; Siegel called mental health-based restrictions "way too broad." But the 1981 law, whatever its flaws, appears to have had some effect—the Legal Forum article notes that though it is difficult to sort out how individual laws affect complex phenomena like gun violence, gun suicide and homicide rates dropped remarkably in Hawaii around the time of the law's passage.


Siegel's research has found that other states with strong background check requirements had similar results. One of his studies from earlier this year that examined homicide rates and state laws showed that universal background checks were linked with a 15 percent homicide rate reduction, and laws blocking people with violent misdemeanor convictions from owning guns were associated with an 18 percent drop in homicides. Those results can be explained, he said, by the fact that those policies make it more difficult for people predisposed to violence to get deadly weapons.

But Hawaii has an additional advantage over states with similarly strict gun laws: its isolation. In places where it's difficult for criminals to buy guns, they can often still get guns in another state with looser rules. One report found that from 2010 to 2015, 74 percent of guns used in crimes in New York State came from other states with weaker gun laws. In Hawaii, by contrast, "it’s very difficult to traffic guns into the state," said Siegel. "You can’t buy a gun in a neighboring state and drive to Hawaii."

Rhoads said that Hawaii can still improve its gun laws, despite its lowest-in-the-nation gun death rates. This summer a "red flag law" sponsored by Rhoads was signed by the governor, allowing people worried about a family member who might hurt themselves or others to petition a court and have their guns taken away. Similar laws have been passed in other states, including some under Republican control, and Siegel noted that they have been found to be particularly effective at reducing suicide rates. Rhoads is also considering proposing that gun owners have to periodically re-register their guns, as a way to further prevent people with criminal records from owning firearms.

Other states can adopt Hawaii's policies, which are hardly unique. But as long as those states are near places where gun purchases are barely regulated, state gun control laws will be limited in their effectiveness, Siegel said. He thinks the federal government should adopt a "baseline" level of oversight when it comes to guns, like expanding background checks, a policy with an amazing amount of public support. But now that Trump has once again decided to greet the issue with a shrug, reforms seem thousands of miles away.

Correction 9/2: An earlier version of this article said that Hawaii bans assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. In fact, the state bans guns known as "assault pistols" and high-capacity magazines intended to be used in such guns, but not all assault weapons. VICE regrets the error.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.