House Judiciary Committee
House Judiciary Committee

After reviewing hundreds of pieces of testimony, and a heated debate over process, power, politics and public input, House Judiciary Committee members narrowly killed controversial legislation that would have made firearms instructors civilly liable for incidents arising during their classes.

More than 360 people submitted testimony strongly opposing House Bill 426. They warned changes in the law would reduce the number of firearms trainers in the field, lead to a decline in education and create a public safety hazard. Just one lawyer, a professional lobbyist, supported the measure that was introduced by House Majority Leader Scott Saiki and backed by his ally, House Judiciary Chair Karl Rhoads.

In a highly unusual series of events, Rhoads recommended that his committee pass the bill, despite overwhelming opposition from the public. However, in an extremely rare occurrence, his vice chair, Rep. Sharon Har, went against his recommendation and voted to kill the bill.

“The fact of the matter is, chair – thank you for the recommendation – however, we had one piece of testimony in support of this measure and over 360 pieces of testimony in opposition,” Har said.

She noted the bill to give firearms instructors’ immunity had passed just last year, and changing it so soon could create a dangerous situation.

“While I respect the recommendation of the chair, the current law has been in effect since 2012 and we have seen nothing but positive things happen with the law, and the fact that we have more life safety trainers actually come out to train. Tinkering with this law at this point could in fact be very dangerous,” Har said.

Har had support from three other Democrats on the committee, including Rep. Ken Ito, who is an experienced shooter.

Both Har and Ito, who are aligned with a different House faction than Rhoads and Saiki, said they were dismayed the bill was routed to the Judiciary Committee before the Public Safety Committee chair had a chance to consider it.

Ito said the bill should have never been heard, and would not have been if the House leadership had not manipulated the committee assignments.

Har added: “We do have some concerns that this bill had only a single referral. Usually these bills go to public safety first and then to Judiciary for the final stop. There are some serious concerns as to the referral on this particular bill.”

“If the chair intends to move this out, I do not like to vote against the chair’s recommendation … respectfully chair, I will be voting no,” Har said.

Two Republicans, Rep. Cynthia Thielen and Rep. Bob McDermott also opposed the bill.

Thielen was swayed by testimony from a state Department of Land and Natural Resources spokesperson who said the legislation would negatively the department’s employees because state officials would be unable to train workers on firearms safety.

McDermott, who in addition to serving in the legislature heads the Navy League, said: “There are a room full of folks here who do not support this measure. We are representatives, and I am going to listen.”

Two Democrats including the chair voted for the bill, three others voted yes but noted their reservations, and four Democrats and two Republicans voted no for a total of 5 votes in support and 6 votes opposed. The measure failed to pass, but could be resurrected by being added into another bill.

Although Hawaii already has among the strictest firearms laws in the country, there are several other measures pending in the 2013 legislature that will make firearms registration and ownership more restrictive.

That includes House Bill 30, introduced by House Judiciary Chair Karl Rhoads, which would require those buying ammunition provide proof of firearm ownership for the caliber being purchased. There are just about 1.2 million people in Hawaii and more than 1 million firearms legally registered in the state. The bill would impact every firearms owner, and also force residents who purchased firearms before the 1994 registration requirement went into effect to also register their firearms.

Other proposals include confiscating semi-auto rifles, instituting ammunition restrictions, and requiring that firearms owners re-register annually as well as go through re-training every two years.

But if the public outcry on House Bill 426 is any indication, lawmakers seeking to ban firearms or make firearms ownership even more difficult than it already is, will have quite a battle ahead, even in liberal Hawaii, both from the public and from their peers.