Thailand’s growing gun problem

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On 6 October 2022, a gun and knife attack at a nursery in Nong Bua Lam Phu province resulted in 36 deaths, with more than half being toddlers. The government at the time made several promises to tighten gun control, but these remain unfulfilled.

Firearms seen on display behind the front window of a gun shop in Bangkok, Thailand, 6 April 2023 (Photo: Reuters/Nathalie Jamois).

Tragically, another mass shooting occurred on 3 October 2023 at the popular Siam Paragon shopping mall in the heart of Bangkok, executed by a 14-year-old with a modified blank gun. The newly formed government responded with promises reminiscent of its predecessor’s, adding even more restrictive regulations on ball-bearing guns and blank guns. But given the government’s track record with actual firearms, the likelihood of these measures being successful remains low.

According to the Small Arms Survey of 2017, Thailand boasts the highest civilian firearm ownership among ASEAN member states with 10.3 million guns. It also has the highest rate of civilian firearms per 100 people — 15.1. In fact, the number of civilian guns in Thailand alone surpasses that of the other nine ASEAN countries combined. This begs questions why gun ownership in Thailand is so high.

Civilian firearm ownership in Thailand is 10 times higher than its military holdings and approximately 45 times that of law enforcement. In stark contrast, Indonesia has about 1.7 million military firearms and 430,000 in law enforcement, compared to a mere 82,000 held by civilians. Among the 10 ASEAN member countries, only Thailand, the Philippines and Myanmar have higher civilian gun ownership than their combined military and law enforcement agencies.

This disparity may indicate a deep-seated mistrust of public safety. According to Gallup’s 2022 Law and Order Index — a composite score derived from surveys on trust in local police, feelings of safety when walking alone at night and experiences of theft and assault — Thailand and Myanmar rank the lowest among ASEAN members. While other ASEAN countries saw an increase in scores from 2019, Myanmar’s score plunged from 85 in 2019 to 73 in 2022, and Thailand’s decreased from 81 to 76.

Myanmar’s drop, from the third highest in ASEAN in 2019 to the bottom by 2022, can be understood in light of the political turmoil and military intervention in 2021. Thailand, on the other hand, has consistently languished in the second or third lowest position in ASEAN between 2020 and 2023. This perpetual sense of insecurity may underpin the nation’s high gun ownership.

The sense of feeling unsafe is shared among government officials. It is believed that a large proportion of the guns in Thailand are from the so-called ‘gun welfare program’, which allows government officers, including retired police officers and state-owned enterprise staff, to buy personal guns at cheaper than the market rate. The Thai government initiated this program in 2009 and the latest round of ‘invitation to participate’ was circulated among ministries in April 2022. The official rationale of this program is to enable these officers ‘to perform one’s duty and to protect one’s own life and property’.

But the high rate of gun ownership may be associated with poor opinions towards public safety. For instance, Indonesia, with its minimal civilian gun ownership, has consistently ranked second in ASEAN in Gallup’s Law and Order Index since 2019. The top-ranking country has consistently been Singapore, which, along with Indonesia, is among the only two ASEAN countries where the civilian gun ownership rates per 100 people are close to zero.

This public opinion data is corroborated by data on gun violence in Thailand. According to the World Population Review, within ASEAN Thailand ranked second after the Philippines in gun deaths per 100,000 people. Crimes involving guns are not limited to mass shootings but are reported in the local news almost every week. On 6 November 2023 in Bangkok alone, two vocational students shot a teenager to death and less than a week later on 11 November, two men opened fire on a group of vocational students and killed a student and a teacher.

It is crucial to highlight that around 40 per cent of civilian firearms in Thailand are illegal. Out of the 10.3 million guns, only 6.2 million are registered. This implies that Thailand’s gun laws are either overly burdensome, prompting individuals to seek illegal firearms or that the supply of such firearms are readily available, or perhaps a combination of both.

A significant portion of these illegal weapons are Thai-style homemade guns capable of firing .22 or .38 calibre bullets. This ‘local wisdom’ has been passed down through generations, predating the 1947 Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, Fireworks, and the Equivalent of Firearms Act. The ubiquity of these homemade guns — even on online platforms — after nearly a century of gun control, underscores the sustained demand for firearms in Thailand.

Thailand’s elevated gun ownership is likely rooted in the populace’s diminishing faith in law and order. Other factors such as toxic masculinity norms and high levels of tolerance for violence have also played significant roles. But the new government can start with improving public safety. This could involve abolishing the gun welfare program, restructuring the police and implementing proactive measures for crime prevention. These actions are more attainable, typically requiring less time than normative adjustments and are likely to receive support from the public.

Boonwara Sumano is Senior Research Fellow at the Thailand Development Research Institute.

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