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Turks and Chaos: Island Jurisdiction a Potential Nightmare for U.S. Gun Owners

Monday, May 13, 2024

Turks and Chaos: Island Jurisdiction a Potential Nightmare for U.S. Gun Owners

Set aside communist Cuba for a moment, these days another Caribbean island jurisdiction is providing a cautionary tale for U.S. gun owners. Multiple Americans face 12 years in prison in separate incidents for allegations they inadvertently possessed ammunition in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

According to reports, Richmond, Va. EMT, husband, and father Tyler Wenrich was charged with possessing ammunition in the island nation on April 23. An article from ABC Richmond affiliate WRIC stated that the ammunition was found in Wenrich’s possession as his cruise ship stopped at the British overseas territory.

The Richmond gun owner’s wife told the news outlet that her husband has a concealed carry permit and noted that “the bag the ammunition was found in may have been the same bag [her husband] uses to go to the gun range.” Addressing the potential penalties for ammunition possession in the islands, the wife said, “Just the idea that your family might not be whole anymore. It’s just really scary and heartbreaking,” adding, “All I could imagine was my son growing up without a dad.”

Describing the situation to a news outlet, Wenrich explained, “I've used that bag to go to the shooting range with friends and to carry my firearm in the past. So it was, you know, I checked it before I left, and it was just a complete oversight on me. TSA and, the port security, you know, three groups missed that ammunition.” CBS’s Richmond affiliate noted that it was only two rounds of ammunition that triggered the arrest.

This incident followed the arrest of Oklahoma husband and father of two Ryan Watson for ammunition possession in early April. Watson was visiting the islands for his 40th birthday when authorities discovered the ammunition at the airport.

Explaining the situation to NBC’s Boston affiliate, the gun owner explained, “They were hunting ammunition rounds that I use for whitetail deer and I recognized them and I thought, oh man, what a bonehead mistake that I had no idea that those were in there.” Watson went on to state, “There was zero criminal intent. I had never, ever intended to bring any type of ammunition into this country.”

In February, Pennsylvania father of two Bryan Hagerich was detained on the Turks and Caicos Islands when ammunition was found in his luggage during an airport search as he and his family were leaving the jurisdiction. Addressing the matter on Fox News, the Pennsylvania father said,

It's a very strict law. They're trying to combat violence…gun trafficking, et ceterra, which I have the utmost respect for, but when you have a law that takes essentially a one-size-fits all approach, there are unintended consequences… We're not a threat to the island. We're not a threat to the people. We're good, loving human beings that simply made a mistake.

The mother of Indiana man Michael Grim, who was sentenced to eight months in prison for ammunition possession in August 2023, was less charitable. Speaking with NBC’s Boston affiliate, the mother explained that her son “did not have a gun. And, you know, there was no violence involved. And so we really did hold out hope that he would possibly get a very hefty fine… But once everything was set into motion, you know, it was a devastating experience.” According to the report, the family “spent more than $100,000 on an extended stay, bail money and attorney fees.”

Further, the family was forced to fear for Grim’s safety. The mother pointed out that the prison where her son was incarcerated “had been sanctioned by the U.N. for unsanitary conditions.”

According to a statement put out by the Turks and Caicos Islands government, since increasing the penalty for firearm and ammunition possession in 2022, the law has ensnared eight U.S. tourists.

Key to avoiding any potential problems is for traveling gun owners to always ensure they start the packing process with an empty bag. However, despite taking precautions, gun owners know that these types of possession accidents can happen. Ammunition and ammunition components are often quite small and can find their way into places they don’t belong. No one’s life should be forever altered over this type of inadvertent possession.

That’s why NRA-ILA has worked with state lawmakers in some jurisdictions to enact safe harbor provisions for travelers. These laws help to ensure that those who discover the possession of a firearm or ammunition during the airport screening process are not prosecuted under state law for illegal firearm or ammunition possession, provided they leave the secure area of an airport immediately. Such laws do not prevent potential federal penalties or, of course, prosecution by foreign governments.

The Turks and Caicos Islands’ insistence on severely punishing otherwise law-abiding American tourists for innocuous conduct is curious. The islands’ primary industry is tourism, which accounts for about 70 percent of the jurisdiction’s gross domestic product. About 82-percent of tourists who arrive to the islands by air are from the U.S. Recent NBC news polling showed that more than half of American households own firearms.

Moreover, Turks and Caicos has a host of real problems to address. Unsurprisingly, they don’t involve well-meaning visitors from the U.S.

In October 2023, The Guardian published an item titled, “Turks and Caicos engulfed by gang warfare, says Foreign Office report.” According to the outlet, an internal UK Foreign Office report “lays bare the extent to which the islands were engulfed by extreme violence… amid a turf war for control of drug trafficking routes.” The report concluded that “The scale of threat posed by serious crime has overwhelmed the capacity and capabilities of the Royal Turks and Caicos Islands Police Force.”

Official corruption may also be a problem. The same article cited a report from the UK’s Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice at Sheffield Hallam University. Describing the findings, the outlet noted,

“Corruption is widely recognised across TCI’s public service system by interview participants [and] survey respondents,” it said. So endemic was the problem that islanders believed corruption was “the second most important crime concern to address on the islands after murder”.

Back in 2009, the UK government suspended the Turks and Caicos government and imposed direct rule on the islands following alleged widespread corruption.

Since September, the U.S. State Department has issued two warnings to those travelling to the Turks and Caicos Islands to take extra care to check luggage for any firearms or ammunition before travelling to the islands. Hopefully the State Department is taking additional measures to help ensure that the outstanding ammunition incidents are resolved without the further incarceration or impoverishment of the U.S. citizens involved.

U.S. gun owners may want to take the Turks and Caicos Islands’ actions into account before risking a trip to the Caribbean jurisdiction. Even U.S. gun owners confident in their ability to purge their luggage of any potential contraband may want to consider the wisdom of spending their money in a jurisdiction that would treat their countrymen in such a manner.

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