Hawaii, Guns, and Medical Marijuana – Why Hawaii is Restricting Gun Ownership for MMJ Patients

Written by: Vanessa Benoit

As cannabis dispensaries gear up for business in the state of Hawaii, the number of gun permit denials is increasing. In particular, the state is denying rights to anyone registered as a medical marijuana patient.

Although some may consider this as an infringement of rights, others consider this a safeguard – a way to protect citizens and society from the gun violence currently plaguing our nation. Perhaps it would be best to let the statistics speak for themselves.

Hawaii’s Gun Laws and Gun Violence Statistics

In the debate on gun ownership, Hawaii seems to be the gun utopia everyone wants, featuring things that would make everyone on the political spectrum happy. The gun restrictions and laws are strict, yet lots of people have guns, and gun violence is exceptionally low.

If you visit Hawaii Rifle Association’s site, you will notice that many precautions are taken in regards to guns. To acquire a firearm within the state, you must be at least 21 years of age, be fingerprinted and photographed, and obtain a criminal background check. You must also release your medical history via a licensed doctor. The licensed doctor will need to provide information about your mental health and any psychiatric diagnoses, and they must disclose if you are continually affected by anything that might hinder your ability to own, use, or operate a firearm safely. For example, a record of drunk driving, domestic violence, or drug and alcohol addiction can bar you from owning a firearm.

If you do acquire a firearm, you have five days to register it with the chief of police. When you travel with your firearm(s) in the car, they must be unloaded in transport; you may go directly from your home to a gun range, hunting location, weapons class, meeting or show, the police station, or firearms dealer. Also, not to mention, to obtain a license for hunting, a hunter education course is required. There are many more laws, but you get the picture.

Even with all these regulations, gun culture in Hawaii is alive and well. In fact, an article from Civil Beat indicates that “A total of 420,409 firearms were registered in the state from 2000 to 2014. And that’s on top of the 1 million firearms that were already in the state, according to an estimate by the Hawaii Attorney General’s office and the Honolulu Police Department in the late 1990s.” [Riker, M. 2015]

The Attorney General claims that there may be more firearms than people in Hawaii, but it’s worth noting that people often register more than one gun under the same permit. A lack of tracking for guns that transfer in or out of the state also makes it almost impossible to determine the exact number of guns present at any one time. However, residents of Hawaii can confirm that there is a thriving hunting culture; usually a typical local knows someone who hunts by either 1 or 2 degrees of separation.

Interestingly enough, Hawaii also has one of the lowest gun death rates in the nation, KHON 2 reported in 2015. “State gun death rates are calculated by dividing the number of gun deaths by the total state population and multiplying the result by 100,000 to obtain the rate per 100,000, which is the standard and accepted method for comparing fatal levels of gun violence.” Using this method, it was found that Hawaii had a gun violence death rate of 9.7%. Comparably, Wyoming had a rate of 62.8%. [Violence Policy Center, 2015]

A Closer Look at the Gun Permit Denials for MMJ Patients

Refusal of gun ownership to those with a medical marijuana status is arguably an example of the federal law infringing upon states. However, federal law states: “It shall be unlawful for any person to sell or otherwise dispose of any firearm or ammunition to any person knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that such person….is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance (as defined in section 102 of the Controlled Substances Act).”

Quite simply, cannabis (in any form) is still considered a Schedule I drug, and thus it is a controlled substance. In 2016, an appeals court backed a lower district court’s dismissal of a complaint from a Nevada woman. She was trying to purchase a handgun in 2011 but was denied because she was a medical marijuana card holder. She argued that it was a violation of her second amendment rights but ultimately lost her case. [Wilson vs. Lynch, 2016]

They went on to say that, if she had owned and registered firearms before getting her medical marijuana card, she could still use said firearms to protect herself and her home in the event of an attack. It’s also worth noting that several sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medications are controlled substances, and instances of people losing their firearms for these substances have happened as well.

What’s puzzling is that the appeals court claimed: “The Government argues that empirical data and legislative determinations support a strong link between drug use and violence. As to the first, studies and surveys relied on in similar cases suggest a significant link between drug use, including marijuana use, and violence.” But this is based on correlations found in data, and due diligence has not been done to determine or separate correlation from causation. For example, a violent criminal who likely dabbles in drugs probably also dabbles in marijuana – but this does not mean that marijuana is the cause of violence.

Meanwhile, in Hawaii, a report from the attorney general’s office shows a rise in gun permit denials. Out of the 328 firearms permits rejected in the state in 2016, 42 were denied due to the applicant’s’ enrollment in the state’s medical cannabis program. Overall, the number of patients with medical marijuana cards has increased, so it is thought that this is the primary factor for the increase in denials.

Going forward, it is hard to say whether this legislation will change. It is possible that, if cannabis is ever removed from its Schedule I classification, we might see studies that deem it safe for people who are medical marijuana patients to purchase firearms. But we can expect that there would probably be limits based on the person’s average THC use or levels. Local Hawaii representatives and senators on both Maui and O’ahu were contacted for comments but were unresponsive. The NRA was also contacted but did not respond to e-mail or phone calls.

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