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County Council moves gun control bill forward with amendments

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Would you be OK with people carrying a firearm in an elementary school or university? What about a hospital, government building or church? Where is it acceptable to carry guns in public?

The Hawai‘i County Council continues to ask those questions as it crafts a proposed gun control measure that details several “sensitive places” where carrying a licensed firearm, concealed or not, would be prohibited on the Big Island.

Bill 220 comes in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that Americans have a right to carry firearms in public for self-defense.

After amending the bill, the Council moved the measure forward with a favorable recommendation Tuesday during a meeting of its Parks and Recreation and Public Safety Committee.

The committee did not take action on the bill during its Oct. 4 meeting to give Council Vice Chairman Aaron Chung, who introduced the measure, time to tweak its language.

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Chung’s amendment took into consideration concerns raised by the public and several council members on Oct. 4. The Council has received nearly 70 pieces of written testimony and heard hours of public in-person testimony in opposition to the measure since its introduction. Most of the pushback revolved around the list of “sensitive places” outlined in the original proposal.

Many of the opponents thought the list was too broad. A majority of council members had the same concern. Some even questioned where guns would be allowed if Bill 220 were to pass as originally written. While they agreed with the measure’s intent, they wanted the list of “sensitive places” to be paired down.

Some also took issue with how the bill would restrict carrying firearms on private property open to the public.

Bill 220 originally laid out 10 categories of “sensitive places.” They included: hospitals and medical facilities; schools and colleges; day care centers, playgrounds, parks and other places where children gather; any churches or religious assemblies; voter service centers; airports and public transit facilities and vehicles; government buildings, courthouses and judiciary buildings; private property open to the public; and bars, restaurants and other establishments that serve alcohol.

Hawai‘i County Council Vice Chairman Aaron Chung speaks during discussion about Bill 220 during Tuesday’s committee meeting. Chung introduced the bill. Screenshot from video.

Chung’s amendment, which had input from the Hawai‘i Police Department, adds a clause saying guns would be prohibited except where permission is granted at schools, colleges, universities or places where people are assembled for educational purposes. It removes language that originally included where people are assembled for literary or scientific purposes as well. The same clause was added in reference to day care centers, but playgrounds, parks and/or other places where children gather remain in the proposed bill.

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It removes “any” churches, instead prohibiting carrying firearms at churches except where permission is granted by the administrator of the church facility or congregation.

The amendment also removes places where people are assembled for an event, social gathering, rally, demonstration or public exhibition that requires a permit and bars, restaurants and establishments that serve intoxicating beverages, which would be covered by the private property open to the public clause.

It took out courthouses and judiciary buildings, since they are government buildings, which remain in the measure. It also removed accompanying parking lots attached to those buildings.

The amendment also changes the wording surrounding private property open to the public to say the prohibition would be applied to places where it is conspicuously posted that the public carrying of firearms is not allowed.

That allowed for the first clause in subsection b of the measure, which also dealt with private property, to be removed. A new clause was added to subsection b that exempts any person authorized to carry a firearm under the federal Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act of 2004 as amended, which deals with the carrying of firearms by law enforcement personnel.

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Other parts of the bill remained unchanged, including prohibiting carrying a firearm while intoxicated; mandating that a person licensed to carry must inform law enforcement, upon contact, if they are in possession of a firearm and present their license for inspection; and authorizing the chief of police to revoke a firearm license for one year for any violation of the new article’s terms.

The Supreme Court ruling struck down a New York law that said to carry a concealed handgun in public, a person applying for a license had to show a specific need to carry the weapon. The law was challenged by the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association and two men who sought to carry guns outside their homes without restrictions.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court said there are places that have historically been viewed as “sensitive” where gun restrictions could be put in place, specifically government buildings and schools.

“Our task is really public safety,” Chung said. “I think we’d be negligent in our duties if we didn’t even look at this matter.”

Regardless of the amount of testimony against Bill 220, Chung said he strongly thinks the vast majority of the community would be appreciative of the Council’s efforts in regard to the measure.

The majority of the Council were in support of the amendment, saying it addresses their concerns. Some, however, still took issue with the other places where children gather, which some thought was still too broad and vague. Chung said he wanted to err on the side of caution, which is why he prefers to leave it in the bill.

Chung said he would prepare another amendment to be considered when the Council considers first reading of Bill 220 that would address his colleagues’ concerns.

He also anticipates the State Legislature will likely take up a measure similar to Bill 220 during its next session. Several members of the public who oppose the measure said the county should wait for the state to take up the issue. However, the majority of the council thought it is best to move forward with Bill 220 so the county has something in place and would not have to wait for state lawmakers.

The measure also has a supremacy clause, meaning if the state takes similar action, county code would be amended accordingly. If not, as Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy said, Bill 220 would provide a nice middle ground for the county.

“I really think this is a fair way of handling it,” Chung said. “It’s sort of a watered down version of what the Police Department had come up with, but I just think it strikes a fair balance but yet protects the public interest and is in line with our community sensibilities.”

He encouraged his fellow council members to reach out to him if they have any other suggestions or ideas for the next draft of the bill.

Councilwoman Heather Kimball, despite having concerns about some of the sensitive places that wereremoved, said Bill 220 is a way to show the state what the county wants and supported it moving ahead.

“We have not yet had a mass shooting, and I want to ensure we do everything in our power to make sure that never happens here,” Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas said. “I think that it is with wisdom that we make statements in law that identify the value systems of our municipality and our county for where firearms are appropriate and not appropriate and should never need to be used.”

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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