By ANITA HOFSCHNEIDER
HONOLULU — The Hawaii House Committee on Public Safety is advancing a bill to require background checks for people who bring in guns from outside the state.
The measure is the only remaining gun control proposal this legislative session, which started just weeks after the shooting deaths of 20 children in Connecticut forced the issue of gun violence onto the national agenda.
Hawaii lawmakers responded by introducing proposals to start a gun buyback program, limit the sale of ammunition to lawful gun owners and increase background checks for people with mental health issues. But all of those proposals have failed.
Hearing after hearing consistently generated testimony from hundreds of opponents largely organized by the Hawaii Rifle Association. Many said they see Hawaii’s existing firearm laws as extremely restrictive and fear further limits on their Second Amendment rights.
“All the firearms supporters are galvanized by what’s happening nationally and locally,” said Max Cooper, legislative coordinator for the Hawaii Rifle Association. “This is the worst year we’ve seen for firearms rights.”
The National Rifle Association is fighting attempts by President Barack Obama and Democratic lawmakers to tighten federal gun-related laws.
Cooper said good advice from sympathetic lawmakers and passionate firearms supporters have led the organization, which has about 2,400 members, to be successful on the state level.
Even Thursday’s vote on the last gun control bill was a victory for the group.
Cooper, speaking before the committee, said he supported the measure because it closed a loophole in an existing law. He suggested one change to the bill’s wording, which lawmakers promptly adopted.
Now Cooper says he can support the measure in full, although he is wary about what could happen in subsequent hearings. The bill still has to go through the judiciary and finance committees. Some lawmakers, he said, are more understanding than others.
One legislator Cooper describes as “anti-gun” is House Judiciary Committee Chairman Karl Rhoads.
In January, Rhoads told The Associated Press that he felt the Legislature needed to take action in response to the Connecticut shootings. He introduced a bill to require people buying ammunition to show proof of gun ownership.
Rhoads said Thursday that he is disappointed with the quick rejection of the firearms proposals but understands why they may have failed.
”Hawaii has some of the toughest gun control laws already,” he said. “There’s not that many pukas (holes) to fill.”
He also noted that the Hawaii Rifle Association is very well-organized. Despite the group’s vocal opposition, Rhoads thinks the majority of Hawaii residents are open to stricter gun legislation. But Rhoads says he won’t attempt to squeeze his proposal through as an amendment to the existing bill.
“I’m not trying to do any legislative gymnastics,” he said.