Hawaii legislators announce proposed changes to laws on mental illness, firearms

Some bills would expedite mental evaluations of people who have committed misdemeanor or petty misdemeanor offenses

Kevin Dayton
Honolulu Star-Advertiser

HONOLULU — State lawmakers announced a package of proposals Tuesday afternoon designed to provide more help to people with mental illnesses, and to close loopholes in Hawaii’s firearm laws in the wake of the Jan. 19 shooting deaths of two Honolulu police officers.

Officers Tiffany-Victoria B. Enriquez and Kaulike Kalama were fatally shot at a Diamond Head home, allegedly by a handyman who is also believed to have killed his landlord, Lois Cain, and himself. Handyman Jerry “Jarda” Hanel, 69, is also believed to have set a fire that destroyed five Diamond Head area homes and damaged two others.

Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard speaks at a press conference following the deaths of two Honolulu police officers. (Photo/TNS)
Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard speaks at a press conference following the deaths of two Honolulu police officers. (Photo/TNS)

Hanel was known to have mental health issues and was involved in conflicts with his neighbors, and the centerpiece of House and Senate lawmakers’ proposals is an effort to open up additional beds where patients can be placed and treated to allow them to stabilize.

State Rep. Joy San Buenaventura said lawmakers were working on the issue of mental illness long before the officers’ deaths because there is a clear need to provide better care to people in the community who have not committed a serious crime, but are showing obvious signs of mental illness.

“It’s a shame that it (took) this tragedy to actually bring it to the forefront,” said San Buenaventura (D, Pahoa-Kalapana).

The bills would expedite mental evaluations of people who have committed misdemeanor or petty misdemeanor offenses.

Eddie Mersereau, the state Department of Health’s deputy director for behavioral health, said bed space can be made available at the Hawaii State Hospital in Kaneohe once construction is completed on a new facility at the hospital. That will free up 90 beds that can then be used to evaluate and stabilize patients, he said.

Another 34 beds at Leahi Hospital at 3675 Kilauea Ave. in Honolulu also might be available for mental health treatment, and state officials are also considering using space at the old state Judiciary complex in Kona and at the Hilo Medical Center or the old Hilo hospital, he said.

Startup for those operations could be funded with $15 million to $30 million from a fund that holds Medicaid reimbursements the state receives from the federal government for providing mental health and substance abuse treatment services, he said.

“These are not new issues, and we’ve been working on them for a couple of years now,” Mersereau said. “We’re at the jumping-off point.”

House Democratic Majority Leader Della Au Belatti stressed the bills are “a work in progress” but said lawmakers are working with law enforcement, the state Department of Health and community advocates.

Lawmakers also are considering an array of firearm-related bills. Among the bills of particular interest to Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard is that guns are shipped to Hawaii in pieces and then assembled here.

Those mail-order guns allow people to avoid state permitting and background checks that each firearm owner is supposed to undergo, and the weapons that are mailed into the state might never be registered as the law requires. Ballard said 60 of those mail-order firearms were registered in one month, which makes police wonder how many more are out there.

Ballard said she also is interested in that would require gun owners to prove they were issued a permit to acquire a firearm before they are allowed to buy ammunition for the weapon.

Another scenario Ballard hopes to address arises when a gun owner dies and his or her survivors do not know what to do with the late owner’s firearms. That may have been a factor in the Jan. 19 slayings of the two police officers.

Lawmakers to require that a personal representative of the late gun owners be appointed to notify police of any firearms in the estate.

Lawmakers also said they are interested in advancing legislation unless they are in their own home. Possession of a firearm while drunk in public would be a petty misdemeanor under the proposed law.

House Public Safety Committee Chairman Gregg Takayama said HPD was working with lawmakers on the gun bills before the deaths of the officers last month, “but let me say that that tragedy has heightened the urgency with which we are considering measures dealing with gun violence and the mentally ill.”

“Yes, it’s true that Hawaii has some of the most restrictive gun safety laws in the country, but we are constantly on the lookout for loopholes so that we can improve the safety of our public and our law enforcement officers while also protecting the rights of citizens to own firearms responsibly,” he said.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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