What to know about Turks and Caicos’ strict gun laws after US tourists charged with possessing ammunition

What to know about Turks and Caicos’ strict gun laws after US tourists charged with possessing ammunition
ABC

(TURKS AND CAICOS) — The plight of multiple Americans charged with bringing ammunition to Turks and Caicos has drawn attention to the islands’ strict gun laws.

Those convicted under the firearms ordinance of possessing ammunition could face a minimum sentence of 12 years in prison — unless a judge grants them leniency for “exceptional circumstances,” Turks and Caicos officials said.

Several American tourists who recently traveled to the popular tropical destination have been charged after inadvertently bringing ammunition, according to a coalition of U.S. Congress members advocating on their behalf.

Here’s what to know about the law and cases.

Turks and Caicos’ strict gun laws
Turks and Caicos prohibits anyone from keeping, carrying, discharging or using an unlicensed firearm or ammunition. There is no constitutional right to carry firearms.

In the U.S., it is legal to fly with unloaded firearms and ammunition in checked baggage, according to the Transportation Security Administration. American tourists previously arrested in Turks and Caicos for possessing ammunition typically were briefly jailed and paid hefty fines before being able to return home.

The British Overseas Territory — which has its own legislature and government — has strengthened its firearms ordinance over the years. Most recently in 2022, it passed an amendment that mandates a minimum 12-year prison sentence for those convicted of breaking the law. The harsher penalty followed an increase in gun-related violence and weapons trafficking.

Turks and Caicos, where crime has been relatively low, saw a “marked increase” in homicides in 2020 and 2021 associated with “international crime, gangs, the availability of firearms, and drug dealing and trafficking,” according to the U.K. Government.

The amendment was one of 11 pieces of legislation the Turks and Caicos House of Assembly passed in November 2022 aimed at addressing rising crime and gang violence.

For those convicted of possessing ammunition and firearms, exceptional circumstances may be considered during sentencing. The sentencing judge “has discretion to impose a custodial sentence (less than the twelve years) and a fine that are fair and just in the circumstances of each case,” the Turks and Caicos attorney general said in a statement in April.

To date, no U.S. national has received the mandatory minimum sentence of 12 years for the offense, the Governor’s Office of Turks and Caicos said Wednesday.

The Americans charged
In recent months, multiple Americans have been charged after ammunition was allegedly found in their luggage:

Michael Grim

The Indiana resident was arrested in August 2023 after one magazine containing 20 rounds of 9 mm ammunition was found in his luggage at Providenciales International Airport when it was screened during a security check, according to court documents.

He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to eight months in prison in September 2023 — with the court finding there was no criminal intent though “the need to send a message to travelers to the Turks and Caicos Islands to exercise caution when packing suitcases and to ensure that items of this nature are brought to the attention of airport officials.”

He was released in February.

Michael Lee Evans

The Texas septuagenarian was arrested in December 2023 after seven rounds of 9 mm ammunition was found in his luggage, police said. He pleaded guilty to possession of ammunition and is out on bail. He was allowed to return to the U.S. due to medical reasons, police previously said. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for June 18.

Bryan Hagerich

The Pennsylvania father of two was arrested in February while returning home from a family vacation after ammunition was found in his checked luggage. He pleaded guilty to possession of 20 rounds of ammunition. He told ABC News he forgot hunting ammunition was in his bag while he was traveling.

A judge sentenced Hagerich on Friday to a suspended 52-week sentence with a fine of $6,700. Once he pays this fine, he will be given his passport and can return to the U.S. without serving the sentence. The judge found exceptional circumstances and that the mandatory minimum of 12 years was unjust and disproportionate to the crime committed.

Prior to his sentencing, he told ABC News he hoped the judge was lenient and that he didn’t want to be separated from his family for 12 years.

“I’m a man of integrity, character,” he said. “I did not have intent in this.”

Ryan Tyler Watson

The Oklahoma resident was returning with his wife from a trip to Turks and Caicos to celebrate several friends’ 40th birthdays when he was arrested on April 12. Four rounds of ammunition were allegedly found in his carry-on bag at the Howard Hamilton International Airport, police said.

Watson has since been released on $15,000 bond but remains on the islands as his court case continues, separated from his wife and two children. His next hearing has been scheduled for June 7.

Watson, who is living with Hagerich amid the legal proceedings, told ABC News he didn’t know the hunting ammunition was in the bag.

“I stand behind Turks and Caicos and what they’re trying to accomplish to get out in front of their gun violence that they are experiencing on the island,” he said, though he added he doesn’t feel that putting those like himself and Hagerich “makes this island any safer.”

“We both just made a mistake,” he said.

Tyler Scott Wenrich

The Virginia resident traveled to Grand Turk on a cruise ship for a bachelor party in late April when ammunition was found in his possession while going through a security checkpoint, police said.

The 911 operator and emergency medical technician, who has a young child, has remained on the island since being arrested and pleaded guilty on Tuesday to two counts of possession of ammunition, for two 9 mm rounds. The judge’s sentence is expected within seven days.

“I have a lot of fear and anxiety as to what’s going to happen and I’m hoping that the judge finds some compassion and leniency in the situation that I’m in,” Wenrich told ABC News.

Wenrich had gone shooting at a gun range with friends and said he forgot he was carrying the ammunition.

“I take a lot of responsibility for it because I have to,” he said, though noted that the ammunition was overlooked by several entities before being found.

“It could happen to anybody,” he said.

Defense attorney Sheena Mair said in court, in arguing for a more lenient sentence, “A mandatory minimum of 12 years in this case is not what Parliament intended with the firearm ordinance change in October 2022.”

“Tyler’s sentencing will not fix the gun issue in this jurisdiction,” she added.

Mair detailed past cases of Americans in which lesser sentences were imposed, including Grim, as well as American Dave O’Connor. O’Connor was found to have 44 rounds of 9 mm ammunition, but received a $5,670 fine and no sentence. In both cases, the Court of Appeals defended the finding of exceptional circumstances.

Sharitta Grier

The Florida resident was visiting Turks and Caicos with her daughter for Mother’s Day when, during a routine search at the Howard Hamilton International Airport on May 13, officials claim to have found two rounds of ammunition in her bag, police said.

She told Orlando ABC affiliate WFTV she had no idea that two rounds were in the bottom of her duffel bag.

Grier was charged with one count of possession of ammunition and released on $15,000 bail. She has been ordered to remain in the Caribbean territory until the completion of her case, police sources said.

A hearing has been scheduled for July 5. She has been living with Hagerich and Watson while her case proceeds.

“They are my forever family,” she told ABC News.

US response
The American Embassy in the Bahamas, the nearest embassy to the islands, issued an alert in April urging all travelers to Turks and Caicos to “carefully check your luggage for stray ammunition or forgotten weapons before departing from the United States.”

Firearms, ammunition (including stray bullets) and other weapons are not permitted in the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI),” the alert stated. ” TCI authorities strictly enforce all firearms-and-ammunition-related laws. The penalty for traveling to TCI with a firearm, ammunition, or other weapon can result in a minimum custodial sentence of twelve (12) years.”

The alert said that TSA screening in the U.S. may not identify ammunition in your baggage and it is “your responsibility to ensure your baggage is free of ammunition and/or firearms.”

U.S. officials have been pressuring the Turks and Caicos government to release their constituents.

In mid-May, the governors of Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Virginia sent a joint letter to Turks and Caicos Gov. Dileeni Daniel-Selvaratnam to release Watson, Hagerich and Wenrich.

“This action will create the necessary recognition of your laws that will impact the future actions of travelers and continue our mutual interest in justice and goodwill between our jurisdictions,” the letter read.

A State Department official confirmed on Thursday that foreign service officers have met with Hagerich and Watson on several occasions since their arrests.

A bipartisan congressional delegation also traveled to Turks and Caicos this week to address the fate of the five Americans charged.

Oklahoma Sen. Markwayne Mullin, one of the members of the delegation, told “Good Morning America” that he left the meetings feeling like they “didn’t find a real path forward” and are considering next steps if they can’t reach a solution.

“We thought we could find some type of common ground to separate the two — ones with the intent and one with no criminal intent,” Mullin said. “We weren’t able to get to that conclusion. So their whole point was that, let the system work.”

Mullin said the next step might be warning American citizens about traveling and doing business in Turks and Caicos.

“I don’t think we’re to that point. But if we can’t come to a solution, that’s the next option for us,” he said.

Turks and Caicos’ response
The Turks and Caicos attorney general has said the firearms ordinance applies to all those on the islands, “regardless of status or origin.”

Following the meeting with the congressional delegation, the Turks and Caicos governor’s office said in a statement that the government has “clear laws prohibiting the possession of firearms and/or ammunition and strict penalties are in place to serve and protect all who reside and visit the Turks and Caicos Islands.”

The office said the government officials “appreciated that the circumstances for U.S. nationals who find themselves in this position can be difficult but were aware that U.S. officials are providing consular support to each of the individuals.”

“Where the court finds there are exceptional circumstances, the sentencing judge does have discretion, under the law, to impose a custodial sentence and a fine that are fair and just in the circumstances of each case,” the governor’s office added.

ABC News’ Stefan Joyce contributed to this report.

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