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Paradise Lost: Efforts Intensify for Justice in Turks and Caicos

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Paradise Lost: Efforts Intensify for Justice in Turks and Caicos

Recently, we published a warning for gun owners traveling to the Turks and Caicos Islands, a British territory in the Caribbean and a popular destination for U.S. tourists. Since then, yet another American has been ensnared by the island’s Sharia-like approach to gun control, which includes a 12-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for the strict-liability crime of possessing any amount of firearm ammunition. This has resulted in a succession of American tourists being arrested and threatened with life-altering consequences for the inadvertent importation of as little as two rounds of ammunition originally possessed for lawful purposes in the U.S. This trend has provoked a bipartisan response from U.S. lawmakers seeking leniency for these unfortunate visitors who had no ill intent and posed no threat whatsoever to the local population.

At least nine Americans have been arrested for ammunition mistakenly brought to Turks and Caicos in their luggage since the island tightened its gun laws in 2022. Several described having emptied these satchels before their trips but missing stray rounds that ended up in pockets or under flaps of bags they had previously used to transport guns in the U.S. None of these incidents involved actual firearms, and local officials appear to acknowledge that they were technical offenses and not a deliberate attempt to subvert the law. Yet one American spent over five months in a Turks and Caicos jail after having been sentenced under the law’s “exceptional circumstances” clause to a “reduced” penalty of eight months for his mistake. Meanwhile, every affected party has suffered severe financial, logistical, and emotional hardships as they await the outcome of their cases.

Shanita Grier, a grandmother from Orlando, was the latest to fall prey to this overzealous anti-gun regime. Grier told the media she “thought she did a good job of cleaning … out” the duffel bag she took to the island on a Mother’s Day weekend with her daughters. She had previously used the bag in the U.S. to transport the firearm she keeps for protection as a store manager. Despite her efforts, two rounds remained in the bottom of the bag. “I didn't know. I didn't see them. I didn't hear them. I knew nothing about rounds in that bag," Grier said in an interview. Her only previous involvement with the law, she added, was a speeding ticket. Ironically, TSA officials had searched her bag during the outbound leg of her trip, missing the rounds but confiscating containers of lotion and body spray. She has now become part of a close-knit community of Americans awaiting proceedings in similar cases and pooling their resources and providing one another with moral support during their enforced stay on the island.

The manifest injustice of the situation has attracted bipartisan attention from officials in the U.S. whose constituents have been swept up in the enforcement dragnet. These included Govs, Glen Youngkin (R-VA), Kevin Stitt (R-OK), and Josh Shapiro (D-PA), who earlier this month collaborated on a letter to Turks and Caicos Gov. Dileeni Daniel-Selvaratnam, asking that the ammunition charges against the residents of their states be dropped. The letter acknowledged that the governors understood the importance of maintaining law and order for the protection of citizens. Yet they noted the ammunition in each case had been lawfully possessed in the Americans’ home jurisdictions. “We humbly ask that your government — in its wisdom — temper justice with mercy and recognize that these men made mistakes but had no apparent malicious intent,” the letter stated.

Last week, a bipartisan congressional delegation also visited the island to appeal for leniency on behalf of the Americans with pending ammunition possession charges. These included Sens. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) and John Fetterman (D-PA), as well as Reps. Guy Reschenthaler (R-PA), Bob Good (R-VA), Josh Brecheen (R-OK), and Michael Cloud (R-TX).

Unfortunately, these laudable efforts do not appear to have resulted in any breakthroughs to date. A statement issued on May 22 by Turks and Caicos Premier Washington Misick emphasized the island’s “[r]espect for the rule of law and an independent judiciary” and asserted “all persons are equal in the eyes of the law.” It also noted that judges are allowed to exercise sentencing discretion in “exceptional circumstances” and that, to date, no American has yet been subject to the full 12-year mandatory minimum. Yet the statement ended on a more ominous and cautionary note: “Let me be clear: In the Turks and Caicos Islands, the law stands firm and applies to everyone equally, without exception. Our commitment to the rule of law is unwavering and remains a cornerstone of our democratic values.”

To that, the NRA would respond: Let us be equally clear. A just and civilized people do not punish well-meaning visitors for harmless mistakes arising from legal and constitutionally protected conduct in their home jurisdictions. To invite Americans to your island for “cultural exchange” and to promote your economy, understanding the differences in our traditions and laws, and then seizing upon regrettable but predictable oversights to terrorize them, is neither hospitable nor gracious. It speaks no more well of Turks and Caicos than a country that would arrest an American woman for driving a car or showing her uncovered face in public. 

In more encouraging news, Pennsylvanian Bryan Hagerich last Friday received a suspended sentence of 12 months on his ammunition possession charges. The judge cited the exceptional circumstances of the mistaken nature of the “offense,” his law-abiding record, and the impact of the proceedings on Hagerich’s daughter. Hagerich was allowed to return to the U.S after paying fines totaling $6,700. Hopefully the courts hearing the cases of the remaining Americans on the island will continue to be as “reasonable.”

Following Hagerich’s release, the members of the congressional delegation made it clear that they will continue their efforts to see the remaining American’s returned safely to U.S. soil. Rep. Reschenthaler, who represents Hagerich in Congress, released the following statement: “Innocent vacation mistakes by law-abiding American gun owners, such as accidentally leaving hunting ammunition in your luggage, should never jeopardize you or your family’s livelihoods. But protections afforded to U.S. citizens under our strong 2nd Amendment can be easily weaponized by draconian laws in foreign nations and territories. Following Bryan Hagerich’s release, I am working diligently to bring home the other Americans detained on similar charges and pressuring Turks and Caicos to be more reasonable when these mistakes happen again. Americans should not be persecuted for our rich hunting, sports shooting, and personal protection heritage.”

While it is heartening to see the bipartisan pursuit of justice and the exercise of judicial discretion and restraint, there are lessons in these cases to be learned closer to home. It is an unfortunate fact that “zero tolerance” enforcement and mandatory minimums for gun control laws have also accompanied harmless and unintentional rule violations right here in the U.S. Reflexive, unthinking punishment that ruins productive lives is never good policy, no matter where it occurs.

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