Hawaii’s Young Guns
Meet Honolulu’s new generation of gun owners.
Photos: Elyse Butler Mallams
Despite Hawaii’s strict firearm laws, gun culture is not only alive in the Islands, but thriving. Firearm registrations have increased by nearly 450 percent over the past 14 years, according to the state attorney general’s office. Nearly 23,000 firearm permits were processed by the state last year alone. “Whenever there is talk about limiting availability, it drives the sale of guns,”says Harvey Gerwig, president and director of the Hawaii Rifle Association. So who are these gun-toting Honolulu residents? The state doesn’t collect demographic data, but anecdotally shop owners say a large portion of their business comes from younger, first-time owners. We set out to find the new generation of Honolulu gun owners. These are their stories.
Photo: Elyse Butler Mallams
Occupation: Cable fabrication technician
Political leanings: Independent
After president Barack Obama’s re-election, hundreds of potential Oahu gun owners rounded the block at the Honolulu Police Department’s Beretania Street headquarters to obtain firearm permits. Each day for weeks, people waited hours, some the whole day, mostly out of get-it-while-you-can fear that Obama’s re-election could mean a ban on certain kinds of guns. Brandon Shimabukuro, 30, was one of those people.
“There was a lot of talk that the AR-15 was going to be illegal. It was the talk of the town,” Shimabukuro says.
The semi-automatic rifle, a version of the M16 rifle used by the U.S. military, is one of the most popular firearms available. Multiple manufacturers produce variations of it, and the gun has been at the center of several recent mass shootings, including Sandy Hook and Aurora. The gun has become the prototypical “assault weapon” to some lawmakers seeking a ban.
But Shimabukuro now calls his decision “foolish.” He waited in line for six hours to register a gun he wasn’t completely sold on in the first place.
“It was money I didn’t have, but, as a person who likes to collect, I just went out and bought any ol’ one I could find. It wasn’t like I looked into the functionality and the specs, like I do all my other pistols and rifles,” he says.
The long lines have since dwindled. A couple of weeks before we interviewed Shimabukuro for this story, he went with a friend to HPD headquarters to register a firearm and only four people were in line.
The Kaneohe resident considers himself a gun-rights supporter, something he inherited from his military dad. He first learned to shoot at the age of 12, when his dad showed him the safe and proper way to handle a pistol.
“It’s always been kind of a family thing,” he says. “He taught us not to be scared of firearms, how to handle them safely and know what you’re doing.”
Shortly after reaching the legal age to buy a gun, at 22, he attended the Hawaii Shooting Sports Fair at Koko Head Shooting Complex. He tried out a whole range of options and settled on a Ruger P95, 9 mm handgun. “It was a fun beginner’s gun,” he says. “I thought it was going to be the one gun that I would ever own.”
Eight years later, Shimabukuro’s collection has grown to six guns. Unlike other gun owners we talked to, Shimabukuro is not necessarily concerned about owning guns for personal protection. Instead, he’s more interested in the shooting aspect and target practice.
“A lot of people stereotype me as Watch out for the zombies or Watch out for the aliens, that kind of deal,” he says. “I’m not even like that. This is just a hobby, it’s a passion, something I love.”
The price of ammunition has also prompted him to become adept at making his own ammo. He buys most of the components online, such as casings and bullets. The gunpowder he buys locally. It’s cheaper to make ammunition himself, he says. “It’s way better than packaged ammunition out there, too.”
It’s not every day that he runs into people who are adamantly anti-gun, but, when he does, he likes to deal with the issue hands-on.
“I ask them if they’ve ever fired a gun before,” he says. Then he takes them to the Koko Head Shooting Complex to find out what it’s like. “They think it’s so dangerous to just touch one. But once they get the feel of it with an instructor, they feel more comfortable.”
And, a lot of times they go on to become gun owners, he says. One friend, he jokes, now has more guns than he does.
Britt Yap and Rod Pontemayor
Photo: Elyse Butler Mallams
Occupation: Reiki healer, life coach and hypnotherapist/Histology technician
Political leanings: Independent
Guns were once a source of contention for Britt Yap and then-boyfriend Rod Pontemayor. In the weeks and months leading up to Yap’s 2011 move to California to live with Pontemayor, the couple had several heated conversations about his plans to buy a gun.
“I was totally against it,” says Yap. “Maybe, culturally, as a Native Hawaiian, I felt there’s a history there—a lot of bloodshed because of guns. I never thought I’d be open to owning one.”
By the time Yap, 30, arrived in the Bay Area, Pontemayor, 35, had already purchased a 9 mm Glock, mostly for self-protection. Yap was still not sold. “I called my dad and I said, ‘What should I do? I don’t know how I feel about this. There’s a gun in my house,’” she says. Her dad told her something that changed her relationship with Pontemayor and to guns.
“He said, either you go all in and learn how to use it or get rid of that thing,” Yap recalls.
The couple lived a few minutes outside of Oakland, and news of constant gun violence helped her decision along. Early-morning break-ins, stories of “people getting shot up” seemed to dominate the evening television newscasts.
“He’d go off to work in the morning and I’d be home alone,” she says. “I couldn’t keep arguing about this ‘scary’ thing in our house.”
Yap went all in. She began studying for the California licensure exam and practicing at shooting ranges with Pontemayor. She eventually ended up buying her own 22-Magnum handgun.
Over the past few years, the couple has amassed nearly a dozen guns between them, split evenly between handguns and rifles, including an AR-15.
The couple even took a tactical home defense course together taught by the San Jose Police Department’s SWAT team. “We decided if we were going to do it, we were going to do it right,” Pontemayor says.
Now living in Royal Kunia, Yap breaks a lot of the typical gun-owner stereotypes. The Kamehameha Schools graduate and former public relations professional is now a certified reiki healer, life coach and hypnotherapist. Pontemayor, now her husband, works in healthcare.
Yap recalls how some of her close friends were “uncomfortable” with her new-found hobby when she began to post photos on social media sites.
“I’ve changed a lot of perceptions of what a gun owner looks like,” she says. “They trust us. They know we’re responsible people. We don’t force it on anyone.”
They’re now getting into archery, with a little inspiration from The Hunger Games.
“It’s cheaper. And you can actually recover your ammo,” Yap says.
Does that mean they’ll be giving up their gun hobby? Not a chance.
Photo: Elyse Butler Mallams
Occupation: Government contractor
Political leanings: Independent
When former U.S. Marine Neal Jensen left the military after six years in 2009, he hadn’t planned on ever buying his own gun. In fact, he had complicated feelings about firearms.
“Out of everyone I know, I’m the most afraid of guns,” he says. “As a former military guy, I know the damage they can do.”
After a few months as a civilian, though, he and his girlfriend (now wife) decided to take the state-required National Rifle Association gun safety course together. They did it on a “whim,” mostly out of a desire to have a gun at home for self-protection. He ended up buying an AR-15, which he had become familiar with during his time as a Marine.
For Jensen, an ‘Aiea resident, his motivation for owning guns has since changed. He was at first a little hesitant to talk about it.
“We started to talk about what life would be like in the event of a worst-case scenario,” Jensen says. “What if we had to hunt for our own food? What if we had to survive long term in society with no laws and no one to protect us?”
He admits, a little self-consciously, that the ideas sound like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie. Jensen is not alone in his fears, either. A whole movement of American gun owners, including some Honolulu residents who declined to participate in our feature, fall into the “prepper” category. Harkening back to the Cold War era, when many Americans built bomb shelters and school kids ducked under desks during drills, preppers fear a doomsday scenario that will require them to take up arms and protect themselves.
“We’re both rational people. We consider that scenario to be absolutely remote,” Jensen says. “It’s kind of, hope for the best and plan for the worst.”
Still, Jensen is a fairly practical gun owner. He meticulously researches guns and buys them only if they will fill a specific need. He and his wife keep their guns locked in a safe that’s bolted to the floor, but they’ve talked about what they would do if they had children (perhaps move the guns out of the house?).
He’s also resourceful. Guns and ammunition are expensive to begin with, but Hawaii’s isolation from the Mainland makes prices even higher. Prices got so high at one point that he began to research how to make ammo himself.
“It’s a whole other aspect of gun culture, learning how to do handloads,” Jensen says. “It’s much, much cheaper. It’s also really fascinating.”
What do people think of him being a gun owner?
“Most people who know I’m prior military expect me to be all about guns. But even when I was in the military, I wasn’t that into it,” Jensen says. “I work, I have family responsibilities—it’s not like firearms consume all of my time.”
Carpenter and family man Shane Fujinaga sees guns as a way to keep his family safe.
Photo: Elyse Butler Mallams
Political leanings: Christian Conservative
As far back as Shane Fujinaga can remember, a gun was just another tool in the back of the truck. Born and raised in Waialua, Fujinaga grew up hunting pig and deer with his dad and uncle on Molokai and Kauai.
It wasn’t until he went away to college in Las Vegas, and a friend’s parents were robbed in their own home at gunpoint, that Fujinaga started to think about owning guns for self-protection.
“No one was hurt. It was lucky for them. Not every case is like that. A lot of times, if (criminals) face resistance, they’ll escalate to deadly force,” Fujinaga says. “That’s what initially got me into defensive training.”
He bought his first gun, a Sig Sauer P226 9 mm handgun, at the age of 23. Twelve years later, Fujinaga is a father of two and is a popular NRA-certified firearms instructor on the North Shore. He has decided to make it his life’s mission to help others protect themselves. Since becoming an instructor in 2011, he’s had more than 300 students go through his basic and advanced-level courses, including Honolulu City Councilwoman Kymberly Pine.
In some ways, he says, having children has made him even more committed to firearms and teaching people to protect themselves.
“I see my son light up and I just want to preserve that as long as I can,” he says. “I want to go to sleep every night knowing I did everything I could to keep my family safe.”
His wife, Athena Fujinaga, says she wasn’t always OK with the idea of guns. It was a slow progression, but eventually she took a gun-safety course herself and became a gun owner.
“He took me diving a lot, and then it was more hunting on land. That’s when the firearms began. He got more and more into it. I was not comfortable all,” she says. “I said, if I’m going to be with this guy, I can’t ask him to give up something he loves.”
Hawaii’s gun laws are often a source of consternation for local firearms owners. But Fujinaga says he’s not particularly bothered by background-check requirements or waiting periods.
“It’s all about intent. The last thing I want is this in the hands of someone who intends to hurt people,” he says, gesturing to several guns lying on the tailgate of
Fujinaga took us to a piece of private property in Waialua to demonstrate an AR-15 rifle, often cited as an “assault weapon” in recent Congressional efforts to ban the gun. He’s bothered by federal attempts to cherry-pick certain firearms to ban.
He shot an AR-15 in rapid succession and then switched to a 12-gauge, pump-action shotgun to compare the two guns. The shotgun ripped through the target. “No one’s talking about banning this thing, but it causes way more damage,” he says.
In a place like Honolulu, which trails most U.S. cities when it comes to violent crime, is there really a need to own guns?
“Can you guarantee something isn’t going to happen to my family?” he asks. “I’m not going to be the one to live with that.”
Hawaii Gun Registration Trends
Across the nation and locally, recent increases in gun buying have been linked to suggestions of tighter gun laws, often prompted by tragic mass shootings. Even Obama’s re-election prompted spikes in gun purchases across the country. Here are Hawaii’s gun registration trends and how they correspond to recent events.
2008 — President Barack Obama elected
2009 — Fort Hood massacre (Nov. 5)
2011 — U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords and 18 others are shot in Tucson, Ariz. (Jan. 8)
2012 — Obama re-elected
2012 — Aurora, Colo., theater shootings (July 20)
2012 — Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. (Dec. 14)
Source: State Attorney General’s Office
Buying and Registering a Firearm in Honolulu
Charting the Path for New Gun Owners
Decide what kind of firearm you plan to purchase.
Long Gun (rifles and shotguns)
Take a handgun safety class from a National Rifle Association-certified instructor and obtain notarized proof that you’ve completed the class. You will only need to do this once.
Submit your application at HPD. Wait 14 days.
Buy firearm at gun store. Get make, model, caliber, action, barrel length, and serial number on receipt.
Pick up permit at HPD within six days. You may purchase multiple firearms with a single permit. It is good for one year.
Submit your application at HPD. You must obtain separate permits for each handgun you plan to acquire. Wait 14 days.
Pick up permit at HPD within six days. The permit is good for 10 days.
Bring permit to gun shop
Pick up your firearm.
Bring both the firearm and the permit to HPD.
Register firearm at HPD.
Source: Honolulu Police Department, Hawaii Rifle Association
Complete the application forms online at honolulupd.org.
When applying at the Honolulu Police Department, Alapai headquarters, you will need:
1. Completed application forms.
2. Exact change for a one- time FBI fee of $16.50.
3. Driver’s license or state ID.
4. If you were born outside of the U.S., bring proof of citizenship.