Compared to other jurisdictions around the Caribbean and North America, Cayman’s problem with illegal firearms appears – at least on paper – to be quite small.
The country is averaging just less than 25 reports of illegal firearms possession per year, not counting imitation firearms cases, since 2005.
But the increase in gun-related crimes; killings in 2009 and 2010 and armed robberies through 2010 and this year have made the situation with weapons appear worse.
The vast majority the 16 homicides that occurred in 2009 and 2010 involved firearms.
Royal Cayman Islands Police Superintendent Kurt Walton admits that there seemed to be an influx of weapons being shipped to Cayman over 2008-2009. During that time about 20 illegal weapons were recovered here and or were bound for Cayman from the US and rounded up before they arrived.
The sheer number of weapons recovered took local police by surprise.
“There were five recovered in a fridge along with some ammunition, there were four recovered along with ammunition in some toys, and some were stopped from coming into the country,” Mr. Walton said. “Obviously from that, we’ve learned a lot. That’s why you see these enhanced security measures at the port.”
There are three main ways that RCIPS believes illegal firearms get into the country. Cayman has no weapons dealers or manufacturers, therefore all weapons that come here must be brought in – legally or illegally – from outside.
First, a small number of illegal firearms are shipped in on drug boats - often called Jamaican canoes or fast canoes - that tend to frequent the less-populated eastern and northern coasts of Grand Cayman. Superintendent Walton said those craft typically bring drugs in, but firearms are commonplace on them as well. Police seized three weapons and about 60 rounds of ammunition from suspected drug boats last year.
A more frequent method is the use of shipping containers through the George Town Port. During 2008 and 2009, police and customs officials here and in the US stopped 17 guns and some 2,500 rounds of ammunition from coming into Cayman. However, in the two locally prosecuted cases only one person went to prison.
“In 2008/’09, all of those guns were directly out of the United States,” Mr. Walton said. “It would appear if there was a huge demand for firearms on the Island. Why are you importing 17 guns with all of that ammunition?”
Three men believed to be connected to the weapons shipping cases received jail terms in the US after they were arrested trying to send several high-powered handguns to Grand Cayman from Florida.
The guns were hidden in boxes filled with home improvement products, according to US federal court indictments obtained by the Caymanian Compass.
According to federal court records, David Gilbert Lyons, Mitchell Anthony Brown, and Brittanio Jermie Walton were charged in the US with conspiring to ship firearms, attempting to export firearms, delivering firearms to a common carrier without notice, attempting to ship firearms with obliterated serial numbers, and possessing firearms with serial numbers obliterated. All three men have since received jail sentences.
US federal court records indicated that Mr. Lyons travelled from Grand Cayman to Miami on 2 April, 2009 to meet up with Mr. Walton and Mr. Brown.
On 10 April, 2009 the charge alleges that the three drove to Pennsylvania to obtain firearms and returned to Miami about four days later.
Attempting to cover up what they were shipping, the federal court indictment alleges that the three men went to a Home Depot store in Hialeah, Florida to buy light fixtures, ceiling fans, a hedge trimmer, and a window air conditioning unit.
Two days later, court records charge that seven boxes containing the items bought at Home Depot were delivered to a freight forwarder in Port Everglades, Broward County, Florida.
‘All (the items) concealed firearms and ammunition,’ the indictment stated.
The US federal court indictments did not disclose to whom the weapons involved in the April 2009 shipment were being sent to. Compass questions regarding whether local law enforcement ever investigated the matter went unanswered.
Another high-profile firearms import case, this one from 2008, involved several weapons that had been shipped to a local woman.
That woman, Cassandra Bodden, was charged with offences related to the alleged importation of firearms described as .40 calibre Smith and Wesson, a 9mm Ruger, .45 calibre Glock model 21 and a 9mm Arcus. She was also charged with allegedly importing 50 rounds of Winchester .38 special, 25 rounds of Remmington Golden Sabre .45 and 347 rounds of Luger 9mm.
During Ms Bodden’s trial, Crown prosecutor Tricia Hutchinson argued that Bodden knew weapons and ammunition were contained in a packaged toy car that was mailed to Cayman and addressed to her. Ms Hutchinson said Bodden told two police officers, who were acquaintances, what was contained in those packages - something she wouldn’t have known about otherwise.
Attorney Benjamin Tonner, who represented Ms Bodden, argued that it was impossible for knowledge of what the package contained to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and reminded the seven-person jury that the burden of proof was on the Crown.
After the first trial ended in a hung jury, Ms Bodden was acquitted of all charges in the case late last year.
In a third firearms importation case, Michael Timothy Ebanks pleaded guilty in July 2009 to importation of handguns and ammunition. Those items were hidden in an imported fridge during November 2008.
According to court records, the guns were found in a refrigerator that Ebanks admitted belonged to him.
However, when Ebanks was first taken to court, the Magistrate at the time was told that an unnamed female had attempted to pick up the fridge. The woman was listed as the importer on customs documents.
She has never been charged in the incident.
Items recovered from the refrigerator included one AK-47 magazine, one Mach 10 magazine, two Smith and Wesson handguns, a Titan handgun, a Tauras .45 handgun and a quantity of ammunition.
Mr. Walton was asked about the public perception that there were loose ends involved with all three of the firearms importation cases.
“The important thing here is that, first of all, the guns never made it onto the streets,” he said. “That has to be the priority. If we are able to get the individual or individuals that are behind it that’s great…but the important thing is that guns never made it to the streets of Grand Cayman.
“It’s like drugs coming into the Islands. We get a lot of drugs, but do we always get all the financers?”
During a month-long firearms amnesty in 2010, police recovered 26 weapons. There were six handguns, three rifles, and four shot guns recovered.
Then there was the homemade pistol; made out of wood with electrical tape wrapped around the handle.
“There’s probably about as much safety in that for the user as there is for the intended victim,” Police Commissioner David Baines said of the make-shift weapon.
The weapon-take gave the commissioner some hope that the problem with illegal firearms was not as bad as some had made out.
“How many are held illegally? We don’t know,” Baines said. “What we can say is that it’s nowhere near as many as people would think. If that were the case you wouldn’t have the same guns being passed between gang members. They would all have their own, wouldn’t they? But that doesn’t happen.
“They wouldn’t be required to make a hand-made thing, or indeed to moderate a flare gun to fire a section one firearm ammunition.”
However, Mr. Baines has often acknowledged the problem faced by local authorities who are troubled by the relatively easy availability of firearms within the US second-hand guns market.
The commissioner has even controversially suggested that the second amendment of the US Constitution, generally known as the right to keep and bear arms, was largely responsible for the deaths of young Caribbean men.
“The prevalence of weaponry and the unrestricted sales of weapons – particularly within the second hand market within the US - is now being exploited to secure large numbers [of weapons], which are smuggled to our region and emerge within the criminal element,” Mr. Baines said in December. “I have no interest in seeking to comment upon the national politics and the laws…of the US citizens and their constitution. However, at an international level – and specifically here in the Caribbean – the constitutional right to bear arms in the United States is directly contributing to the denial of the right to life for young men in the Caribbean.”
Firearms ownership is legal in the Cayman Islands, but it is not an absolute right such as the one conferred by the US Constitution.
According to Mr. Walton, there were 1,556 legally-held firearms in the Cayman Islands as of 1 April, 2011. There were 922 owners attached to those weapons, he said.
But the ultimate arbiter toward gun ownership in Cayman is the commissioner of police, who is advised by a committee that reviews firearms importation and renewal applications.
“Ultimately, that decision…is down to the commissioner,” Mr. Walton said. “You can apply for it, there’s no guarantee it’s going to be approved.”
Mr. Walton said he has seen very few applications come forward to the police firearms review committee, on which he sits, where the applicant is seeking a firearm for home defence.
“What I will say is that persons who are involved in sports shooting…and obviously for hunting, that has been the most sought after in terms of applicants, “ he said. “[There are] very few coming through I see like that [for self-defence]. It’s not necessarily addressed in the firearms law.”
According to a decision by the Cayman Islands Complaints Commissioner, Cayman’s police commissioner can make unilateral changes to firearms applications forms whenever he likes. .
Those applications are the documents that must be filled out and renewed by all licensed gun owners on the Islands.
Police changes to firearms applications, importation and renewal forms were disputed by local resident Dennie Warren Jr. who claimed in a letter to Complaints Commissioner Nicola Williams that the police commissioner was allowing firearms applications forms to be published that “please(d) him instead of the law”.
According to firearms applications forms reviewed by the Caymanian Compass, there have been several changes to the initial application document set forth in the Firearms Regulations (1999 Revision).
In forms published last year on the RCIPS web site, there were several requirements for firearms applicants that are not set out in the regulations. Those include seeking two letters of reference from “prominent persons in the community (e.g. doctors, lawyers, MLAs)”, a letter from the Agriculture Department if the weapon is to be used for hunting, and supporting documentation from the Cayman Islands Gun Club if the gun owner is a member.
None of these requirements are set out in the 1999 regulations.
Also on the newer forms, applications are required to declare that they have not been convicted of a criminal offence “anywhere in the world at anytime”. They also agree to give RCIPS officers the right to inspect at anytime the safe where a weapon must be kept.
These declarations are also not required in the 1999 version of the application forms contained in the regulations attached to the current law.
At issue in the complaint was whether the legal authority fell to the police commissioner, the governor or the Cabinet to change regulations in the Firearms Law.
That law (2008 revision) states: “The governor may make regulations for the better carrying out of this law and, in particular…for prescribing anything required or permitted by this law to be prescribed.”
According to definitions given in the law, “governor” means the “governor in Cabinet” or all members of that body, not the governor acting in his sole discretion.
Commissioner Williams noted that the current law was a bit unclear with regard to firearms applications forms.
“It would appear that the appropriate authority would be either the governor or the police commissioner, perhaps devolved down from the former to the latter,” she wrote in a letter dated 9 March, 2010.
By allowing the forms to be changed without altering the regulations in the law, Ms Williams stated that the police commissioner had not “ignored his duty of care to the public” as the initial complaint in the case had claimed.
“These requirements [in the firearms application], whilst arguably more restrictive on gun users/owners, put in place better safeguards for members of the public,” Ms Williams wrote. “[If] there is a concurrent duty of care to gun owners/users that must be considered, then this has to be weighed against the duty of care to the general public.”
“We will not go down the road where there is a free reign on legal firearms,” Superintendent Walton said.
There are comparatively few examples of a legally-held firearm being used in connection with criminal activity in the Cayman Islands, but there have been some cases in the past five years where legally-held weapons were stolen from homes and used by offenders.
The most notable recent example was the robbery of Mostyn’s Esso in Bodden Town in June 2010 where, during a police pursuit, one of the suspects allegedly fired a shotgun at RCIPS officers. No one was hit by the gunfire.
According to RCIPS records examined by the Compass, eight firearms, as well as hundreds of rounds of ammunition, have been stolen from their legally licensed owners in the Cayman Islands since 2005.
Records provided by the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service to the newspaper through the Freedom of Information Law also indicated that only two of those weapons and a few rounds of ammunition have since been recovered. The other weapons remain unaccounted for.
The police service has reported the following instances of firearms theft from a lawful owners’ home:
5 July, 2005 – a 9mm handgun as well as an estimated 150-200 rounds of ammunition were taken from a location on Shamrock Road. Nothing was ever recovered.
2 October, 2006 – At a George Town home, a 22 calibre rifle and several ammunition rounds were taken. They were later recovered.
17 August, 2007 – a 12 gauge Remington with an undetermined amount of ammo was taken from a West Bay home; none of it was recovered.
7 July, 2008 – Three weapons, a .38 calibre revolver, a 22 calibre rifle, and a 12 gauge shotgun were taken from a home in Bodden Town and never found.
20 April, 2010 – In Newlands, a 12 gauge shotgun with 50 rounds of ammo, as well as a 9mm pistol with 150 rounds were taken. Only the shotgun was recovered.
Three of the thefts - the ones that occurred in George Town, West Bay and Bodden Town - occurred during the daylight hours. The thefts on Shamrock Road and in Newlands happened in the evening.
“We inspect [a homeowner’s premises to ensure there is a robust security system in place to prevent a theft of the firearm,” Mr. Walton said.