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Concealed carry applications spike on Big Island; County Council considering proposed gun measure

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Brandon Nakayama, 21, of Hilo checks out the handgun selection Oct. 27 at S. Tokunaga Store in Hilo as manager Eric Kuwana stands by to assist him. Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now.

Each month, hundreds of customers enter S. Tokunaga Store in Hilo to peruse and shop its selection of at least 15 brands of guns, including their best-sellers: 9mm Glocks and Sig Sauers.

“Right now, the firearms industry is pretty in demand,” Michael Tokunaga, the store’s owner, said. “Everybody is interested in getting firearms now. Ever since the pandemic, everything went crazy.”

Since summer, Tokunaga said he has seen about a 50% uptick in sales for handguns. And, Hawai’i County has had a spike of 87.5% in applications for concealed carry permits.

Acting Big Island Police Chief Kenneth Bugado Jr., who is currently responsible for approving or denying firearm registrations for Hawai’i County, reported the department received 48 concealed carry permit applications through Oct. 17. It had only received six by the same time last year.

The increase in concealed carry permit applications follows a June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down a New York gun law that required people to demonstrate a specific need for carrying a gun in public in order to get a concealed carry license.

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Hawai’i State Attorney General Holly Shikada, in response to Hawai’i Gov. David Ige’s request for a clarifying legal opinion, wrote in an early July letter that police chiefs should not deny a concealed carry application or impose restrictions on a concealed carry license because an applicant fails to demonstrate a special need or sufficiently good reason to carry a firearm.

In August, the Hawai’i Police Department revised its permitting process for licenses to carry firearms to adhere to the Supreme Court ruling.

But there is some ambiguity in the high court’s ruling. It said there are places that have historically been viewed as “sensitive places,” where gun restrictions could be put in place, specifically government buildings and schools.

Currently, there are no state statutes that regulate where licensed firearms can be carried, Acting Chief Bugado said.

Now, the Hawai‘i County Council is considering a measure that would define those “sensitive places” and add a new article to county code that details where carrying a licensed firearm, concealed or unconcealed, would be prohibited.

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The Council will consider first reading of Bill 220, which was introduced by Council Vice Chairman Aaron Chung, during its regular session Wednesday.

“The legal carrying of concealed firearms by citizens in our County is a big change to the culture that we are used to,” Bugado said. “The introduction of Bill 220 will allow our County to move forward with preserving public safety interests, ensuring the overall safety of the community.”

Staff members work at the firearms counter Oct. 27 at S. Tokunaga Store in Hilo. Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now.

This year, gun registrations on the BIg Island have decreased by 17% from the same time a year ago. Through Oct. 17, 2022, the Hawai‘i Police Department said there were 7,802 registered firearms. At the same point in 2021, the department had approved 1,617 more gun registrations for a total of 9,419 registered firearms.

The 48 applications to carry a concealed weapon on the Big Island came from all districts except Hāmākua, with most coming from South Hilo. So far this year, 19 have been approved, all after the Supreme Court ruling.

The County Council’s proposed measure already has been amended to take into account concerns from the public and council members that the list of “sensitive places” was too broad. Language in the bill also was changed in regard to restrictions on private property open to the public, which would include places such as bars, restaurants and other businesses.

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The measure also would prohibit carrying a firearm while intoxicated; mandate 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 authorize the chief of police to revoke a firearm license for one year for any violation of the new article’s terms.

Chung said during the Oct. 18 meeting of the Council’s Parks and Recreation and Public Safety Committee that Bill 220 strikes a fair balance while protecting public safety.

University of Hawai‘i at Hilo Chancellor Bonnie Irwin said UH executive policy, in part, says the possession or use of lethal weapons on university premises is already prohibited unless specifically authorized by the senior vice president or chancellor. Bill 220, with its most recent amendments, would fall in line with that policy.

“If the measure were to pass, our university attorneys would review our existing university policies to see if any revisions were in order,” Irwin said.

Esther Kanehailua, superintendent of the Hilo-Waiākea Complex Area, said the Hawai‘i Department of Education has yet to formally weigh in on the proposed measure.

“As with all proposed legislative measures, we would need to take a close look at all of the impacts — direct and indirect — before taking a position,” Kanehailua said. “As educators, our highest priorities are ensuring a high-quality education for all students and providing a safe learning environment and workplace for students and staff.”

Tokunaga said Hawai‘i is evenly divided when it comes to firearms.

“You get your two sides in the story,” he said. “Then you get the ones in between, can go either way, but given time they might be pro or they might be con. Hard to say, depending on their life situation. Everybody’s different from what I see.”

Tokunaga’s sees people of all different types who are interested in firearms.

“You see young, you see old. You see this race, you see that race,” Tokunaga said. “It’s all different types of people who just want firearms like that as a whole.”

He said people with concealed carry permits are legitimate and responsible.

A portion of the handgun selection on display Oct. 27 at S. Tokunaga Store in Hilo. Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now.

“Our County makes you jump through so many hoops just to acquire (a concealed carry permit), the guys who already have it, they’re not going to do something stupid with it,” S. Tokunaga Store manager Eric Kuwana said.

All firearms in Hawaiʻi must be registered whether or not they are serviceable and no matter how they are acquired, with a couple of exceptions.

The Hawai’i Police Department takes into account several things when considering applications to register and carry a firearm. The applicant should:

  • Be qualified to use the firearm in a safe manner.
  • Appear to be a suitable person to be so licensed.
  • Not be prohibited from the ownership or possession of a firearm.
  • Not have been adjudged insane or not appear to be mentally deranged.

If Bill 220 were to pass, Tokunaga’s would put a sign on the door saying customers would be allowed to conceal carry inside. Customers also already bring firearms into the store for various reasons, they just have to be in a box or case. Now, they can’t just walk in with a gun.

Kuwana said it’s all about common sense when it comes to carrying a firearm.

“Since we are in the firearms industry and they have a permit to conceal carry, then that’s fine with us,” Tokunaga said.

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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