According to Hawaii Statutes §134-7 (3) (my emphasis), no person who

Is or has been diagnosed as having a significant behavioral, emotional, or mental disorders as defined by the most current diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association or for treatment for organic brain syndromes;

shall own, possess, or control any firearm or ammunition therefor, unless the person has been medically documented to be no longer adversely affected by the addiction, abuse, dependence, mental disease, disorder, or defect.

Standard canons of interpretation provide that there are no superfluous words in statutes, so presumably the legislature intended to divide people with "behavioral, emotional, or mental disorders" into two groups - one whose diagnoses were "significant", and the other whose diagnoses were "insignificant".

What is this distinction? That is, what are the criteria that distinguish someone with a "significant behavioral, emotional, or mental disorder" from one who has a diagnosis that is insignificant?

I did find a formal definition of "serious" (not significant) mental illness at Hawaii Statute §431M-1,

"Serious mental illness" means a mental disorder consisting of at least one of the following: schizophrenia, schizo-affective disorder, bipolar types I and II, obsessive compulsive disorder, dissociative disorder, delusional disorder, and major depression, as defined in the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association and which is of sufficient severity to result in substantial interference with the activities of daily living.

This definition clearly countenances the existence of persons with "non-serious" mental illnesses, but I am not convinced that this is the intended definition for state firearms prohibition, both because of the different qualifying adjective ("serious" versus "significant") and because this statute falls under a different title (Insurance).

I also considered that there might be administrative guidance as to the meaning of this term. I found a firearms permit questionnaire from the Honolulu Police department, but it simply asks,

  1. Have you ever been diagnosed as having a significant behavioral, emotional, or mental disorder?

without providing any guidance as to what is meant or what criteria the applicant should use to determine significance, or even whether the applicant should apply legal or clinical factors.

I can think of all sorts of possibilities for how one could reasonably interpret the clause:

  • This refers only to people whose disorder is so significant that they have been declared legally incapacitated and placed under guardianship.
  • This ties in with eligibility for certain disability benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI). If the person doesn't receive any of these benefits, and/or has been found to be ineligible for them due to insignificance of their illness, they are not ineligible under this clause.
  • This applies only if a person has been specifically advised by a health care practitioner that the person is too ill to safely use a firearm.
  • There is an administrative agency, such as the Department of Health, that formally and individually evaluates persons with diagnosed behavioral, emotional, or mental disorders in order to determine if their conditions are "significant" enough to trigger firearm ineligibility. If someone has gone through this process and received a determination of Insignificance, they can be confident that they are not covered by this law, can answer "no" on application forms, etc.
  • There is an official list of "significant" diagnoses, and all other diagnoses are considered "insignificant".
  • The individual makes their own determination - the statute is not intended to apply penalties, but rather to provide gentle guidance to persons with disabilities to not engage in activities that they are not able to handle, the same way that a person with uncontrolled diabetes might be discouraged from entering a speed cake-eating competition.
  • All diagnoses are initially deemed "significant", but the "no longer adversely affected" clause allows a health care practitioner to certify that a person can safely use a firearm despite their diagnosis (even though, at first glance, it appears to apply only in cases where the illness is no longer present at all).

This question is not a debate thread on gun control or disability rights.

If this clause has been ruled void or unenforceable (e.g. unconstitutional, void for vagueness, etc.) but remains in the statute book for historical reasons, that's an answer.

1 Answer 1


It is, practically speaking, impossible for a layman to know whether a given situation constitutes a significant behavioral, emotional, or mental disorder. Instead, a technical expert would make that determination. So most of the question isn't legal, it's psyychiatric. There is a book that spells this out (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5)), which is the current standard (updated from DSM-4). This article discusses some of the differences, if that helps. W.r.t. DSM-4, the authors note that

the phrase “clinically significant” is in some ways tautological here; its definition is precisely what is at stake when defining a mental disorder.

The legal stance that the Hawaii legislature took is that they don't get into the business of defining "significant" as opposed to "insignificant", they defer to the professional organization. In a legal proceeding, if there is a professional difference of opinion, the two sides would testify as to the defining criteria in DSM-5 and the facts that the experts have observed about the individual.

However, on the face of it, it is simple. Have you been officially diagnosed with a significant mental disorder. If no, you can buy a gun, if yes, you may not buy a gun.

  • So, what you are saying is that there is no such thing as being diagnosed with an insignificant mental disorder? That is, any diagnosis is, ipso facto, considered significant. That was my initial thought, but doesn't explain why the legislature didn't just say "diagnosed as having a behavioral, emotional, or mental disorders as defined by...." Jul 1, 2019 at 15:44
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    The legislature basically copied the verbiage from DSM. You would have to buy DSM-5 and study it extensively to see whether they say anything that suggests two kinds of disorders, perhaps "significant" vs "temporary", or "minor" – that's where Psychiatry SE would be useful to you, if it existed. There is a Psychology SE where the technical question might get an informed answer.
    – user6726
    Jul 1, 2019 at 15:49
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    I see no reason one can't be diagnosed with an insignificant mental disorder. Fear of spiders, for instance. Jul 1, 2019 at 21:54
  • By the way, this is not unusual - the law often defers to professional standards in medicine, engineering, education etc.
    – Dale M
    Jul 1, 2019 at 21:55

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