October 11, 2023
BANGKOK – Talk about gun control flares up with every mass shooting in Thailand – then fades away. Officials muddy the waters by lumping the discussion with issues such as mental health, drug abuse and, in the case of Tuesday’s tragedy in Bangkok, Internet use.
While the full circumstances of the shooting have yet to emerge, this much is clear: A 14-year-old Thai boy walked into the crowded Siam Paragon shopping mall with a gun that was designed to fire blanks but was modified for live ammunition, and left two people dead and five others wounded.
In a press conference on Wednesday, government officials vowed to tighten security measures and review gun laws. They stressed that this was an isolated incident.
But the facts are more uncomfortable. Tuesday’s shooting came almost one year after a former policeman went on a knife and gun rampage in north-eastern Nong Bua Lamphu province, killing 36 people, including 22 children.
In 2020, a soldier armed with an assault rifle in north-eastern Nakhon Ratchasima killed 29 people and wounded more than 50 others over a 17-hour period – much of it while being holed up inside a shopping mall.
Civilians in Thailand held more than 7.2 million guns in 2021, according to estimates by gunpolicy.org, a gun control portal hosted by the University of Sydney School of Public Health. Of these, 1.2 million were unregistered and illicit. In 2019, 1,292 people were killed by gun violence.
The ubiquity of firearms – real or replica – means that the public is more likely to cheer on a gold shop owner who pulls out a gun and wounds an armed robber rather than ask serious questions about the state of security in the country.
In 2022, gun enthusiast Phisit Raphitphan shot one of the four men who were attempting to hold up his shop in Tak province. After the incident, another gold shop owner in the southern province of Songkhla posted a picture of herself online holding a shotgun in her shop. The photograph went viral and inspired copycats.
All this can mean only one thing: It will take political will to address the costs of Thailand’s gun culture head-on.
In March 2023, Thailand’s outgoing Cabinet approved a Bill tightening gun laws while giving a 180-day amnesty to people willing to surrender their unregistered firearms. Nothing came of it, because Parliament was dissolved just days later to call for fresh elections.
The government headed by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin is now dangling a much shorter 30-day gun amnesty, which is being overseen by Interior Minister Anutin Charnvirakul.
But experts say a more holistic approach is needed.
Dr Boonwara Sumano, a senior research fellow at the Thailand Development Research Institute, argues that the government would be better off amending existing gun control laws – which she calls too “relaxed” – than introducing new ones to make up for shortfalls.
Prospective owners of guns need to produce a testimonial from their superiors to get their licence – something which she pointed out was hardly a safeguard against a rogue user.
“It doesn’t make sense because you will not misbehave in front of your boss,” she told The Straits Times. “A lot of these requirements are not really effective.”
Applicants for the gun licences, which do not have an expiry date, do not need to go through detailed checks to determine if they have a history of domestic violence.
There are no rules governing guns firing blanks, so they can be freely traded on the Internet for 4,000 baht to 5,000 baht (S$150 to S$185) each, points out Dr Piyaporn Tunneekul, a criminologist from Nakhon Pathom Rajabhat University.
Since blank guns modified for live ammunition cost 8,000 baht to 10,000 baht, they are a cheaper alternative for youngsters who want to buy firearms.
Meanwhile, a government scheme that allows civil servants to buy tax-free guns is another major source of weapons circulating among civilians. These “welfare” guns, which can be bought for 30,000 baht to 40,000 baht instead of the usual 70,000 baht to 100,000 baht, cannot be resold for five years after purchase. But there is no limit to how many guns each civil servant can buy.
“In the beginning, the ‘welfare’ guns were used to protect government officers in risky professions. Over time, the guns started to be treated like assets, so the civil servants bought more,” Dr Piyaporn told ST.
The elite associations with firearms have also turned guns into status symbols.
“The youth think guns are cool,” says Dr Piyaporn, who has interviewed gun owners for her research. “The people tell me a gun means power. If you have a gun, you have power.”
Tightening gun ownership laws in Thailand would require the courage to deal with such entrenched interests.