20 Years After Hawaii's Worst Shooting, Gun Violence Rates Lowest in Nation

Nov 1, 2019

As Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of Hawaii's worst mass shooting, it's worth noting that the state has some of the strictest gun restrictions in the country and the lowest rate of gun deaths.

Seven people were killed and one wounded at the Xerox corporate office in Honolulu when disgruntled employee Byran Uyesugi opened fire with a semi-automatic pistol on Nov. 2, 1999. 

The Xerox shooting came just a few months after the Columbine massacre at a high school in Colorado. But unlike Colorado, and many other states, Hawaii has not had a similar event since. State Sen. Karl Rhoads thinks Hawaii’s strict gun laws are part of the reason for that.

“We had pretty good gun protection laws before it happened. I think probably the biggest effect [it] has had over the years is that you can point to the Uyesugi massacre and say, unfortunately, it does happen here and strong gun protection laws are necessary to keep us safe,” Rhoads told HPR.

Despite the restrictions, there are still plenty of guns in Hawaii. In 2018, the state Attorney General’s office estimated there were 2 million privately owned fire arms for a population of 1.4 million. But gun violence is less of a problem than in other states.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hawaii has the lowest rate of gun violence in the nation – with 2.5 deaths per 100,000 residents. Alaska has the highest rate of gun-deaths – 10 times more than Hawaii.

The national average, which includes murders and suicides, is five times greater than for Hawaii.  

That hasn’t stopped state lawmakers from enacting new gun laws. This year, Gov. David Ige signed Act 150, a so-called “red flag law,” which allow courts to order the seizure of privately owned guns if a family member reports the owner may harm themselves or others.

Clifford Goo, president of the Hawaii Rifle Association, thinks the laws passed in recent years are an overreaction to shootings in the mainland U.S., rather than the reality in Hawaii.

“I kind of think they’re an undue burden. Every time they make a new law, they never take into consideration the say of the responsible gun owner.”

Goo says that he does support Hawaii’s gun safety education requirements and some mental health checks, but broadly feels that gun owners are often demonized by elected officials.

In the case of the Xerox shooting, mental health is of particular interest. Byran Uyesugi pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, a defense that was ultimately rejected.

At the time of the shooting, Hawaii already had mental health controls for gun purchases, but only at the time of sale. Senator Rhoads says some kind of recurring checkup may be worthwhile.

“People’s states of mind change over time and I think there's something to be said for having a system where you check to see whether or not the person still qualifies for the weapon.”

Rhoads said he thinks Hawaii’s current gun laws are by and large sufficient, in need of only some tweaks regarding high-caliber firearms and magazine capacity for rifles.

The Hawaii Rifle Association says it wants to work with lawmakers to change some state rules, including the red flag law, which it views as unfair.