Thailand's other pandemic

A rise in firearms violence, along with mass shootings in Korat and Lop Buri, renews calls for stricter gun control measures

May* stood impassively over the lifeless body of her estranged husband. A pistol clinched tightly in her trembling right hand. The firearm, purchased over the internet by her husband who was a gun enthusiast and member of a shooting range, was the weapon she used on the fateful day she resorted to drastic measures to stop her husband from hurting her. A company manager, May was on the verge of a nasty divorce from her partner, a physically abusive man with a drinking problem.

Ti*, a member of a vocational student gang, built his own home-made shotgun to use in getting even with a student from a rival college. That evening he gunned down the unsuspecting boy on a public bus, half full with evening commuters.

From settling domestic issues to a lapse of poor judgement in resolving personal conflicts, the use of firearms in Thailand is rampant in all forms of criminal activity. It is believed that over 60% of crimes in Thailand involve firearms, making it fair to assess that gun-related crimes are a scourge on Thai society.

Studies on the subject attribute the soaring rise in such crimes to an apparent lax in gun control laws, coupled by the laid-back attitude decision-makers have on addressing the issue head-on.

Criminologist Assoc Prof Piyaporn Tunneekul of Rajabhat University, Nakhon Pathom, explained that Thailand has always had a gun culture, and that the endemic patronage system had made things worse.

"The concept of owning a gun for a Thai in the past was for the purpose of protection," he said. "However, through the years, this mindset has been altered. Today people believe ownership of guns conveys a sense of wielding power. A firearm is also a sign of authority and control, a sign you are not afraid of anything. The reason why such crimes never received national attention in the past was because they were brushed off as personal conflicts, and so not a danger to society as a whole.

"The Terminal 21 Korat massacre and the gold shop heist in Lop Buri last year, where firearms played a major part in ending the lives of many innocent people, was a wake-up call to seriously address gun control in the nation."

The veteran researcher believes the root of the problem stems from the exploitation of loopholes found in acquiring firearms and ammunition by shady characters.

"Gun purchasing schemes in occupations such as the police force and military is often where it all starts. Loopholes can be found in everything from registering for ownership of the firearm to buying and selling it. Due to the lack of transparency and rampant practice of patronage, which has become an integral part of Thai society, gun control often doesn't get the amount of attention at the decision-making level to bring about active change."

Gun control is a national issue, said Assoc Prof Piyaporn, however, the manner with which it is managed has been haphazard.

Lack of continuity at the decision-making level, coupled with the fact that Thais have a tendency to easily forget, are two glaring reasons she gave for hindering change.

"After the random shootings in Lop Buri and Nakhon Ratchasima, among the major topics that were raised was the control of firearms. However, after the hype of both incidents died down, there was little discussion on the subject," said Assoc Prof Piyaporn, who raises awareness about gun control by distributing her findings to government and educational institutions.

For constructive change to occur in the long term, she recommends that gun laws be updated. She suggests Thailand follow the system in Japan, known to be one of the strictest.

"Laws we have today are outdated to the point that one can't expect much from enforcing them. Laws on gun ownership have to be amended to cause accountability. The current law requires the person to be at least 20 years of age. However, what we have found is that a significant number of young adults are still immature. Research has proven that 25 is a more adequate age, because for one, most people are working at that stage.

"It should become mandatory for applicants to go through proper training, where they are taught not just how to use a firearm but also not abuse it. After this, they should sit for a written test, where they must score at least 96 out of 100 to pass. Last, but not least, gun owners have to disclose to authorities where they plan to store their firearms."

Assoc Prof Piyaporn noted that the duration of a gun licence should not be lifelong, as it is today in Thailand, but rather three years as it is in Japan. After this duration of time, the gun owner has to sit the exam again.

"As it is in Japan, I would suggest pistols are kept off limits when it comes to owning a firearm. Due to their size, they can easily be used to commit a crime. Japan is stringent in the types of guns one is allowed to own. And for good reason.''

One of her short-term proposals is an appeal for the government to initiate a programme where people who have illegal firearms in their possession can return them to the state for a monetary incentive. This has proven to be effective, she reasoned "lessening the chances of firearms landing in the wrong hands".

Another area to focus on, she said, is capping the number of firearms and ammunition circulating in the country.

"If it is 10 million, keep it at that number. When a new lot is purchased, the old stock must be destroyed, so the numbers are kept within the limit agreed on.''

One of Assoc Prof Piyaporn's major concerns at the moment is juvenile gun violence, which continues to rise. She said laws concerning youth crime have to be stringently addressed to curb the rampant use of firearms, both illegally purchased and home-made, by young offenders.

Besides implementing and amending gun laws, she said parents, teachers and youth role models need to take an active role in educating Thai youth on firearms safety. Moreover, Thai media has to become more responsible by not sensationalising crime reports.

"News channels today, due largely to fierce competition, add detailed infographics, in addition to personal emotions, to spice up their reporting. These broadcasts, which often have no age limit for viewers, can go on for hours and are watched by everyone in the house.

"The impact this has on young minds is rather disturbing from what we found in our research. Watching how guns have the power to bring people under submission conveys the false idea to youngsters that a person with a firearm is invincible. This group of misguided youth often consist of people who already suffer lack of confidence and self-esteem, and so can be easily swayed into believing that guns can make them feel in control and powerful."

*Not their real names.