For insiders interested in how the state House might function under new leadership, a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday afternoon offered a fascinating microcosm.
House Majority Leader Scott Saiki had introduced a bill that would have repealed liability protection for National Rifle Association firearms instructors who conduct state-mandated firearms’ training courses for people seeking firearms permits. The protection was passed into law only last session.
“I never understood why we are implementing the NRA’s national agenda in Hawaii,” said Saiki, a personal injury attorney.
A lobbyist for trial attorneys was the only one to speak out in favor of the bill before the House Judiciary Committee. Dozens of gun enthusiasts filled the third-floor hearing room to oppose the bill, while hundreds more sent written testimony.
The Hawaii Rifle Association described the bill as a “back door gun ban,” because it could prompt NRA instructors to stop teaching the training courses for fear of liability, leading to fewer courses and less people meeting the requirement necessary for gun permits. Several lumped the bill with attempts nationally to restrict Second Amendment rights in response to the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., last year.
Rep. Karl Rhoads, the committee’s chairman, wanted to advance the bill with amendments. But he first explained to lawmakers that he would not be upset if they voted against his recommendations on bills.
It has long been the practice in both the House and Senate for lawmakers to follow committee chairmen, so `no’ votes are relatively uncommon, particularly among majority Democrats. It is even more unusual for a committee to reject a bill recommended by a chairman.
But Rep. Ken Ito complained that House leadership — Saiki — had bypassed the House Public Safety Committee and referred the bill only to the House Judiciary Committee. He questioned why lawmakers would even hear the bill when the liability protection was just approved last year.
Rep. Sharon Har, the vice chairwoman of the committee, who has complained about the bill referral process under the new leadership, echoed Ito. She also noted that the testimony was overwhelmingly in opposition to the bill.
Rep. Cynthia Thielen, a Republican who is part of the new leadership coalition, asked Rhoads to delay action until lawmakers and NRA gun experts could see his proposed amendments in writing.
Rhoads declined and called for a vote.
The bill failed to advance 6 to 5. The majority not only went against the committee chairman, they went against the committee chairman on a bill sponsored by the majority leader.
Four of the `no’ votes came from Democrats who had been loyal to former House Speaker Calvin Say; two came from Thielen and another Republican who organized with House Speaker Joseph Souki and Saiki.
Both Saiki and Rhoads said afterward that they did not attempt to influence the vote, and did not seem particularly unhappy that the bill was rejected. “I lost,” Rhoads said simply.