Turks and Caicos amends draconian gun laws

The Turks and Caicos parliament has amended local laws removing a mandatory 12-year sentence for anyone caught with illegal weapons, live ammunition or spent shells in the wake of a recent fiasco involving the arrests of several American tourists and angry Congressional representatives demanding their release.

The former British colony and idyllic tourism paradise was caught in the middle of an unwanted diplomatic problem in the past month when security scanners at the main airport had detected a few unused rounds of ammunition in the luggage of several outgoing passengers. They were promptly arrested, charged and detained in police cells while lawyer and congressional representatives demanded their release, calling it an inadvertent mistake. No weapons were found in any of the suitcases.

But TCI officials held their ground, saying the law was clear and had to be enforced, but they have since softened their position late last week by amending the legislation allowing a judge to treat some cases as “exceptional circumstances”, imposing fines and a short sentence rather than the mandatory 12-year jail time as previous clauses had demanded.

Attorney General Rhondalee Braithwaite-Knowles said the courts now have “the widest possible breadth of discretion to impose a lesser sentence than the mandatory minimum,” noting that deterrence is the main goal of the law rather than custodial sentences.

Meanwhile, the government has the support of the political opposition. Opposition Leader Edwin Astwood said he wanted 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.

“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.”