Return to Paradise? Government of Turks and Caicos Amends Draconian Weapons Law

Gun Rights

We have recently been reporting on the untenable situation in the popular tourist destination of the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI), where a harsh weapons law with mandatory imprisonment for violators has been snaring Americans for accidental violations involving stray rounds of ammunition in their bags. While local courts have avoided imposing the law’s life-altering 12-year mandatory minimum in each case, with judges citing the law’s “exceptional circumstances” clause, the incidents have traumatized and financially burdened those involved, some of whom were jailed for days, weeks, or months. Underscoring the capricious nature of the law is the fact that some of the violations involved tourists who were on their way to board airplanes to leave the jurisdiction.

Now, multiple news outlets are reporting that TCI officials have amended the law to allow judges more flexibility in responding to the facts of each case. The changes, TCI Attorney General Rhondalee Braithwaite-Knowles told a local news outlet, provide courts with “the widest possible breadth of discretion to impose a lesser sentence than the mandatory minimum.” The main goal of the law, she explained, was deterrence, not custodial sentences.

According to CNN, however, the 12-year mandatory minimum is still on the books; judges now simply have more flexibility within the “exceptional circumstances” framework. Yet another outlet reported that judges previously were obligated to impose some sort of custodial sentence, even where exceptional circumstances were found. Now, apparently, violators in that situation can avoid going to jail and resolve their cases by paying fines or by serving a lesser custodial sentence in combination with a fine.

Just exactly how this will work in practice remains to be seen. It is often said when it comes to criminal law that “the process is the punishment.” That is, the ordeal, expense, and stigma of arrest and prosecution still extract a heavy toll, even if the person is eventually exonerated or treated leniently at sentencing.

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If, as it seems, the amendments to the law only benefit a person who is actually convicted and faces sentencing, then innocent mishaps could still result in overly harsh consequences.

If, on the other hand, law enforcement officers consider the changes when determining whether an arrest is appropriate in the first place, the amendments could help restore some much-needed sanity and proportionality to TCI’s purported public safety efforts. 

Also unclear is if and how the changes will affect the Americans arrested while the prior law was still in effect and whose cases remain unresolved.

TCI’s economic model depends heavily on tourism, and tourism by Americans in particular. It is therefore counterproductive, inhospitable, and unjust to exploit harmless mistakes involving conduct that is constitutionally protected in the U.S. to make a point about the contrary values of the TCI or to shake down visitors with criminal penalties for technical violations of overly broad laws. Encouraging careful packing or respect for local customs doesn’t have to mean terrorizing well-meaning travelers who pose no actual threat of harm.

While it’s encouraging to see recognition from TCI officials that the law needed to change, gun owners who seek sunshine, idyllic beaches, relaxation, and a welcoming atmosphere may wish to monitor TCI’s implementation of the amendments before making plans for a visit. We will continue to report on any noteworthy developments.

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