Originally published on Channel NewsAsia on October 4, 2017
We take a look at Thailand's gun laws and why despite that the country still has (supposedly) the highest rate of gun-related deaths per capita in Asia and even rivals the United States in that regard.
In Bangkok’s Chinatown district, there’s a whole street dedicated to firearms: from pistols to rifles, shotguns and revolvers all there on display in the storefronts.
But buying a gun in Thailand is not a straightforward affair - least in theory.
On paper, gun laws are pretty strict in Thailand: any applicant has to be at least 20 years old and has to pass background checks that screen the applicants' personal conduct, livelihood and criminal records. A firearms license can be issued for self-protection, security of property and sports and costs about $30, a firearm about $600.
According to government statistics, 6.2 million guns are officially registered in a country with a population of 68 million people. That means one of out every ten Thais legally owns a firearm.
However it is estimated that the actual number of firearms in the country is much higher than that: the online database GunPolicy.org, run by the University of Sydney's School of Public Health, believes there’s a total of 10 million guns in circulation due to a high influx of unregistered weapons on the black market, either smuggled in from abroad, or allegedly sold by corrupt Thai officials.
And these illegal guns often end up being used in many crime cases in Thailand.
"Most weapons used in crimes are unregistered or home-made firearms like pen pistols," explains Thititorn Bupparamanee, president of the Firearms Traders Association of Thailand, "That often happens in rural areas, where these kind of weapons are popular because they are easy to get and not expensive."
Registered or not, the consequences of high gun ownership in Thailand are deadly. While there are no official gun crime statistics released by Thailand’s authorities, international studies paint a grim picture: a 2013 study by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health and Metric Evaluation has counted 7.48 deaths per 100,000 people, more than twice the fatalities from shootings per capita compared to the United States.
While mass shootings are rare in Thailand, almost every day the crime sections of media outlets report on murder cases, where victims are shot dead. These crimes – by shooting – are mostly because of a personal vendetta or a local business dispute. Especially in cases involving loss of face, some Thais tend to take the law into their own hands.
"The problem is not that the law isn’t too strict. The penalty for illegal possession of firearms is 10 years in jail, and for weapons of war there’s even the death penalty," argues Thititorn, "So it’s already pretty strict. But the problem is that - especially with younger ones - there is less respect for the law."
With no public debate about gun control, let alone any prominent groups pushing for reforms, Thailand’s gun problem will remain a deadly one for the foreseeable future.
Saksith Saiyasombut, Channel NewsAsia, Bangkok