After American Tourists Arrested, Turks and Caicos Makes Major Change to Gun and Ammo Law

AP Photo/Brittainy Newman, File

At least five U.S. tourists who accidentally traveled to the Turks and Caicos Islands with ammunition tucked inside their luggage have been arrested and charged with violating the British protectorate's ban on firearms and ammunition this year. While every tourist sentenced so far has managed to avoid the 12-year prison term mandated under the law thanks to a judge finding "exceptional circumstances" existed in their cases, officials have publicly dismissed requests by several governors and members of Congress to modify the sentences that can be imposed. 

Behind the scenes, however, the delegations that traveled to the Turks and Caicos to urge leniency for tourists may have had an impact. Just a few days ago the Turks and Caicos House of Assembly approved a change to the current gun laws. While possessing a firearm or ammunition is still against the law for both tourists and residents, the mandatory 12-year sentence has officially been scrapped.

Under the Firearms (Amendment) Bill 2024, the mandatory 12-year sentence that a judge was required to impose, has been removed, and according to Attorney General, Hon. Rhondalee Braithwaite-Knowles, King Counsel, in situation where there are “exceptional circumstances” the amendment gives the court distraction to impose a “lesser sentence than the mandatory minimum.

“The Firearms (Amendment) Bill 2024 clarified that the Supreme Court has the widest possible breadth of discretion, although the court must ensure that the punishment of a persons convicted is in keeping with the dominant purpose of Parliament, which is deterrence,” she said in a press statement.

The Attorney General added that the courts are empowered to exercise discretion in sentencing that is proportionately consistent with exceptional circumstances of the cases that are before them.

While no one in the Turks and Caicos government has specifically pointed to the arrests of multiple tourists as the impetus to revise the law, it's those arrests and the potential prison sentences that raised attention to the draconian punishment that's now been done away with

Commenting on the amendment, Opposition Leader Edwin Astwood, stated: “I want to emphasize the importance of this amendment in ensuring that the judiciary can administer justice more equitably. This legislative change is a critical step in ensuring our legal system is both just and flexible. It acknowledges that not all cases are alike and that our judges must have the ability to consider all factors and impose sentences that are truly just and appropriate.”

He added: “As I stated in my position last month, “We the PDM believe it is necessary to immediately review, and potentially amend the existing firearms laws, gaining public consultation and thereby creating a more nuanced and flexible legal framework. While we must uphold the rule of law, we believe that our legal system must be flexible enough to consider extenuating circumstances and to differentiate between individuals who pose a genuine threat and those who may have no criminal intent and unknowingly violate the law.”

Especially when those who unknowingly violate the law are part of a larger group that's responsible for a large chunk of the Turks and Caicos economy. Tourism is probably the single-most important industry in the Turks and Caicos Islands, bringing in an estimated $787 million in 2019 alone. Arresting visitors who inadvertently left a stray round or two of ammunition in their luggage could easily have a chilling effect on the number of visitors to the islands, and several Second Amendment organizations including the Second Amendment Foundation have already warned gun owners to find another tropical locale to visit rather than risk running afoul of the guns laws in the Turks and Caicos Islands. 

So, even though TCI officials complained about the visits by members of Congress and letters from governors like Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma and Pennsylvania's Josh Shapiro, it sure looks like they've taken the criticism to heart. Gun owners who are caught with an errant round of ammunition in their baggage don't have to worry about a potential 12-year sentence anymore, though they can still face thousands of dollars in fines if they're charged with violating TCI's prohibition on guns and ammunition. That's definitely an improvement over the former law, but I still believe it gun owners are looking for a sunny getaway, Gulf Coast beaches in Constitutional Carry states like Florida, Alabama, Texas, and Mississippiare a much better alternative than the "gun-free" Turks and Caicos Islands.