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Forget Australia’s Gun Laws. American Reform Advocates Have Their Own Island to Study.

How Hawaii manages to be home to both a rising number of firearms and rock-bottom rates of gun violence.

It’s not hard to come up with reasons why Hawaii ranks among the country’s happiest states. What you may not know is that it’s also the healthiest. While that status is largely attributable to public health phenomena like lower rates of smoking and depression, there’s another factor playing a small part: Its residents are at a significantly lower risk than mainland Americans of dying by gunshot.

According to a data calculator maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hawaii’s rate of gun homicide clocks in at just 0.62 victims per 100,000 people. (The rate for the United States as a whole is 3.99, a nearly sevenfold difference.) Hawaii boasts one of the country’s lowest suicide rates, which have been shown to increase when a gun is kept in the home, and just 20 percent of the state’s suicides are committed with firearms — nationally, guns are responsible for a little over 50 percent. A study from earlier this year also assigned Hawaii the lowest prevalence of non-fatal firearm injuries in the 18 states it measured. Whether intentional, accidental, assault-related, self-inflicted, or indeterminate, these incidents consistently occur at far lesser frequency in the Aloha State. 

Yet even as it records such comparatively low rates of gun violence, Hawaii’s gun dealers have enjoyed an enormous surge in sales in recent years. A study relying on 2013 data determined that 25.8 percent of Hawaiians are gun owners — a national low, but up significantly from the statewide rate of 9.7 percent recorded in older data. The state’s rate of legal gun ownership is also reflected in numbers tallied by its permit-to-purchase and gun registration systems, and the trends are eye-opening. According to data released this year by the state attorney general’s office, gun permit applications across Hawaii increased by 298 percent between 2000 and 2014. Over the same span of time, the number of registered firearms spiked by 355 percent. Some observers wonder whether the state may now be home to more guns than people.

Put together, the numbers point to a conundrum. Research shows that higher rates of gun ownership lead to higher rates of violent crime. How has the Aloha State avoided the correlation?

The answer begins with one way in which Hawaii differs from many of its continental cohorts: As the number of guns in the state has increased, Hawaii’s legislators have enacted some of the strictest gun safety measures in the country.

State law, for starters, requires a universal background check for all firearm sales. Citizens are required to obtain a permit and sit through a two-week waiting period before making a purchase, and they must register any firearm they buy. Registration itself is a multi-step process that can lead prospective gun owners on as many as five separate trips to either a police station or gun retailer. Permits for concealed-carry, meanwhile, are issued at the discretion of the state’s county police chiefs, who set a high bar (a recent decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals looks poised to bulldoze that hurdle, though the state’s lawyers are fighting the ruling). In short: Background checks, waiting periods, elaborate registration guidelines, and strict limits on concealed-carry permits combine to seriously vet prospective gun owners, and limit impulse and illegal purchases.

These policies are of particular relevance now, given the ongoing national debate about stringent gun regulations and whether they actually keep people safe. Hoping to stoke demands for change, President Barack Obama observed after the mass shooting at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College that “states with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths.” Second Amendment advocates unsurprisingly chafe at such claims. Subscribing to the (debunked) thesis that more guns bring less crime, they argue that it was the expansion of America’s privately held arsenal that led to the drastic drop in violent crime the country experienced in the early 1990s. They also point to quiescent states like New Hampshire and Vermont, both of which regulate guns very leniently, as firearm-friendly, violence-free counterexamples to data showing a link between rates of gun ownership and gun violence. On the other side of the coin, the travails of Chicago — home to both relatively tough gun laws and terrible (if also overblown) gun violence — have likewise become a beloved meme on the Right.

Which brings us to the other thing setting Hawaii apart: The thousands of miles separating the island chain from the United States, which act as a natural obstacle to gun smuggling. That makes an important difference, since many other states find their gun laws easily thwarted by a steady flow of illegal guns from their neighbors with weaker gun laws. Here, Chicago becomes an example not of the ineffectiveness of gun regulations in general, but the patchwork of laws that exists from state-to-state: More than half of all recovered guns used to commit crimes in the city between 2009 and 2013 were originally purchased in other states with looser regulations (particularly Indiana, its laissez-faire next-door neighbor). On the East Coast, traffickers have brought thousands of illegal weapons, including several that have been infamously tied to police assassinations, into cities like New York. Those guns come from the “Iron Pipeline” states of Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas — but also from those scenic New England states with laid-back gun laws. 

Hawaii is a reminder about the importance of cross-border trafficking. It’s hard to get a gun if you’re not qualified to own one. There’s no simple alternative, like driving twenty miles, crossing state lines, and going to a different gun store.”

Hawaii’s vast separation from the rest of the country makes that kind of interstate trafficking far trickier. The latest figures from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) show that in 2014, only 128 crime guns were recovered and traced in the state. An earlier study by the Mayors Against Illegal Guns dug deeper into the ATF’s data. It found that in 2009, Hawaii imported just 13 crime guns in 2009. That is a mind-bogglingly scant figure, the best in the country by far. It’s lower than the New England Second Amendment utopias Vermont (50) and New Hampshire (80), along with remote rural states like Wyoming (43) and North Dakota (39). As might be expected, the oceanic distance cuts the other way as well: Hawaii exported just 30 crime guns that year, and the state’s ratio of interstate gun exports per 100,000 residents is the second-lowest in the nation (ranking a tick higher than similarly hyper-regulated Washington, D.C.). Finally, information from the ATF indicates that the “time-to-crime” period of guns traced in Hawaii (the length of time between a firearm’s retail purchase and its recovery in a criminal investigation) is nearly seventeen years. That’s about 60 percent longer than the United States average.

“Hawaii is a reminder about the importance of cross-border trafficking,” Philip J. Cook, a Duke sociology professor, tells The Trace. Cook has written broadly on the economics of crime, including a 2007 paper on the underground gun market in Chicago. In Hawaii, he notes, “It’s hard to get a gun if you’re not qualified to own one. There’s no simple alternative, like driving twenty miles, crossing state lines, and going to a different gun store. That’s just not a possibility. So I think they’re protected against guns in other states by the fact that they’re out there in the middle of the Pacific.”

Hawaii’s unique degree of gun safety would therefore seem to bear a simple explanation. It erected an extensive legal apparatus to keep firearms away from criminals and largely out of the public square, and its detachment from the inconsistent gun laws of the continental United States has kept those rules from being subverted. But the state’s island status raises the obvious question of whether its approach is replicable. Chicago isn’t about to set itself adrift in Lake Michigan, after all.

In this way, Cook went on to suggest, Hawaii offers a kind of case study in what federal gun regulations might look like — a country in which firearms would be more difficult to acquire and carry in public, much harder to procure illegally, but still plentifully owned by law abiding citizens. 

“If we start talking about a national strategy,” he says “that eliminates the ‘Chicago-Gary problem'”—i.e., the network of criminal actors funneling illegal guns into Chicago from nearby Gary, Indiana. “At the very least, it would cut into some of the flows we’re seeing right now, just as the Brady Act cut down on some interstate trafficking. Probably, it would tell us something about the potential effectiveness of national regulation as opposed to states going it alone, where they’re being undercut by their lax neighbors.”

Gun regulation enthusiasts often laud the example of Australia, which tightened licensing rules, severely restricted automatic and semiautomatic weapons, and initiated a buyback program that removed roughly 650,000 guns from private hands in the wake of the 1996 Port Arthur massacre. But the problem with that model is that Australia is, well, Australia. Any federal gun reform would have to be enacted by American politicians and pass muster with American courts’ interpretation of the Constitution. Home soil, then, might be a more sensible place to look for solutions. Is it possible that gun reformers have been looking at the wrong island?

[Photo: Sergi Reboredo/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images]