Easy guns bring Wild West mentality

In recent years Thailand has been flooded with illegal firearms and the misery they cause is plain for all to see. Every day there are media reports of shootouts and homicides that begin with domestic quarrels, school rivalries and traffic accidents, and quickly escalate. Law enforcement officials say the root cause is the easy availability of guns, and this is true for teenagers as well as adults. People prefer to buy weapons outside of legal channels because they are much cheaper, and don't involve the hassle of registering the guns as required under Thai law.

  • Published: 18/11/2012 at 12:00 AM
  • Newspaper section: topstories

UP IN ARMS: A licensed gun shop in the Wang Burapha area. Critics say gun shops aligned with a state scheme to give discounts to officials are contributing to the flood of guns in the country.

The issuance of gun permits is linked to house registration. For criminals there is the added bonus that guns bought on the black market can't be traced back to them. Some illegal firearms are cheaply produced locally by fly-by-night manufacturers, but most are foreign-made, either smuggled in, stolen or resold without registration (see box, Page 5).

''I have one Smith & Wesson revolver and one Beretta automatic pistol. They are both illegal,'' bragged a young man who said he started buying guns while attending a ''rough'' vocational school. ''Guns are like school supplies. On our campus, we might use a gun to protect ourselves from violent, unruly seniors. Outside, we have rival schools ...''

The young man said it is easy to get illegal guns of any type.

''I bought mine from a friend three years ago. The revolver cost about 20,000 baht while the Berretta was more.''

He said illegal guns might change hands often, but no one cares as long as they are in good shape and work properly. He said new illegal firearms are plentiful along the east coast in provinces like Chon Buri, Rayong and Trat, and speculated that this is because they are smuggled in by ship.

''The price for a new [foreign-made] gun may be as low as 30,000 baht. It depends on the type and brand,'' he said, adding that he doesn't carry a gun around these days, but might keep one in his car. However, he said this isn't wise from October to December because the police are more likely to search vehicles during that period to boost their arrest numbers.

Among the firearms routinely seized by police are locally made Thai pradit, of which there are several types. Some pradit are extremely cheap and easy to produce, and in certain vocational schools the students reportedly make their own. One type of locally made shotgun costs about 2,000 baht.

In the old days, several villages in Uthai Thani province were known for producing good quality homemade guns. Due to a police crackdown more than 30 years ago, most villagers gave up the practice, but some continue.

In August, police raided a small factory in Uthai Thani producing pradit and high demand is reportedly keeping local gun makers busy in houses, shops and even national parks.

A temporary factory was found by accident in Doi Pha Klong National Park in Phrae province during an operation against forest encroachers.

In Chumphon and Satun provinces police arrested arms makers who confessed to producing and selling more than 1,000 shotguns and rifles during the past three years, saying as far as they know they were to be used for hunting and self-protection.

OFFICIALS' GUNS FLOODING BLACK MARKET?

In addition to the growing numbers of smuggled and illegally produced firearms in the country, the Customs Department reports that the annual value of revolvers and pistols legally imported into Thailand is also rapidly increasing. In 2008, the import value was given as 567,495,800 baht. In 2009 this more than doubled to 1.3 billion baht, and reached 1.8 billion baht last year. Most are exported from the US, the Czech Republic and Austria.

Many believe that a government scheme is responsible for the sudden jump in imports in 2009, the year a programme giving government officials a 40% discount on firearms purchases went into effect.

The justification for the scheme is that it is necessary to supply licensed firearms to government officials for self-protection. However, the programme has become controversial as the debate over the relationship between gun availability and crime heats up.

Thanit Noipeng, director of the Investigation and Legal Bureau of the Provincial Administration Department under the Interior Ministry, defended the scheme. He said that most guns recovered in crime suppression operations are obtained illegally. ''They do not use licensed guns in homicides,'' said Mr Thanit.

Yet there is evidence that legal guns can easily move into the criminal market through several channels

Last year, for example, Thongnak Sawetsila, a local environmental activist who opposed the widespread transport and storage of coal in Samut Sakhon province, was gunned down. The firearm used in his murder was traced to an official in the Investigation and Legal Bureau who had purchased the gun under the discount scheme.

The gun had apparently been sold and resold many times despite a stipulation that the guns cannot change ownership until after five years.

Last year, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) began investigating the guns-for-officials scheme after receiving several complaints of irregularities.

One high-ranking DSI officer said the scheme was at odds with national security. He cited an example of a case in Pop Phra district in Tak province, where almost 200 applications to obtain guns under the scheme had been approved.

''One irregularity is that a number of individuals received more than one permit to join the scheme, even though each permit allows the purchase of multiple guns. So far only one person has confessed to any wrongdoing, but the investigation is continuing and we're trying to find where the guns are going,'' said the DSI officer.

He also said it is suspicious that so many licensed guns under the scheme have been reported lost or stolen. ''In one province, more than 200 guns were reported missing by their owners. How is that possible?'' he asked.

The exact number of guns issued under the scheme and reported lost hasn't been disclosed, but the DSI officer said it's likely that many of the guns seized along the border with serial numbers scratched off fall into this group. ''In addition to the local market there is a strong possibility that some are sold to well-to-do people in neighbouring countries, as well as to armed groups along the border,'' he said.

The Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) office in Chiang Mai also began investigating irregularities in the programme after 154 guns were reported lost last year.

Most of the guns were registered to military men and low-ranking policemen. Isoc is looking into reports that the guns were pledged at gambling dens. The officers involved have been prohibited from applying for the purchase of more guns under the scheme.

WRONG IN PRINCIPLE AND PRACTICE

Pol Lt Gen Manoj Kraiwong, chairman of the Senate commission on Justice and Police, said that loopholes in the scheme have led to more illegal guns entering the black market. ''The scheme is wrong in principle and wrong in practice. To promote the purchase of guns for self-protection reflects the state's failure to protect its citizens,'' said the chairman. He added that it is the duty of the state to provide adequate weapons to security forces whose job it is to protect the people, natural resources and the country.

''But we have to suppress illegal gun smuggling and trading rings and dry up the possible sources of guns for criminals,'' he said.

Speaking as a veteran policeman, Pol Lt Gen Manoj said that it is unwise for ordinary people to keep guns at home, primarily, he said, because they don't know how to use them safely.

But he added that keeping guns on hand may be a good idea for some businesses like gold shops which are targets for robberies. The police have recently provided firearm training courses for gold shop owners and workers.

Pol Lt Gen Manoj said gun dealers benefit from the cheap firearms for officials scheme. Previously each gun shop could only order 30 pistols and 50 rifles for sale a year. Shops registered with the cheap firearms scheme have had their quotas raised to as much as 1000 guns total. According to Mr Thanit's Investigation and Legal Affairs Bureau, during 2009-2014 gun shops under the scheme have been allowed to import a total of 285,000 guns.

Meanwhile, Mr Manoj's commission has advised the government not to extend the scheme, and recommended that each individual should be allowed to own only one gun for protection.

An owner of a gun shop in the Wang Burapha area said that new gun shops have been set up specifically for the scheme, and added that ''most new gun shops have support from people in uniform''.

''I have operated a gun shop for more than 30 years, but I cannot join the scheme. Many old shops face the same problem,'' he said. He also said his business had been adversely affected by the scheme because it had resulted in higher prices.

''Under the scheme, they can sell cheaper because they have a high high volume and much lower operation cost,'' said the gun shop owner. He claimed that ordinary people who want guns are approached by officials who have the right to purchase firearms under the scheme.

''An official can buy more than one gun, and if they add an extra 10,000 to 20,000 baht [on top of what the official pays], it is still lower than the normal price at the gun shop,'' he said.

He thinks more restrictions are needed if the government really wants to give the officials access to cheap guns.

''First do not just give quotas to the gun shops. Each gun shop should be allowed to order guns only when they have names which have been approved by government agencies, with the gun types and brands. This would help control the number of guns coming into the country,'' said the shop owner.

SMUGGLED ARMS RACE

From January, 2007, to September, 2012, Customs Department officials seized illegally imported firearms worth more than 35 million baht. In 2010 alone, the value of seized firearms was about 19 million baht. Most were handguns, but about 1,000 rifles worth seven million bath were seized at Laem Chabang sea port in Chon Buri province. It is believed that the amount of seized firearms is small compared to the number that are successfully smuggled and circulated on the market.

There is a controversy over what should be done with the seized firearms. Normally, the Customs Department would sell them to government officials and the general public. But complications arose four years ago when officials under the Interior Ministry refused to register them because they were illegally imported. The Office of the Council of State has ruled that the Customs Department must coordinate with the Interior Ministry in selling the seized guns, and that they can be sold either to registered gun shops or to any individual who has already received a permit to purchase a gun from the Interior Ministry.

WEAPONS WALK: Wang Burapha is known for its legal gun shops. But many people purchase firearms on the black market.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Tunya Sukpanich
Position: Reporter

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