Just over one week ago, police launched a crackdown on a major gun-trafficking gang in coordinated raids in five provinces, including Bangkok. The operation was highly successful: 16 suspects including the alleged gang leader, a former village headman and a state official were arrested, while dozens of firearms of different calibres were confiscated.
Many of the confiscated pistols and rifles were shown at a much-touted press conference over which national police chief Pol Gen Suwat Jangyodsuk presided.
But one crucial element of these confiscated guns was barely mentioned by the police. It turns out that many of the seized guns were bought by the gang under a welfare gun programme run by state agencies.
The programme was introduced over a decade ago to help government officials of different agencies and state enterprise workers to obtain guns, pistols in particular, for self-protection and at prices much cheaper than at gun shops. Any state agency can initiate a welfare gun programme for its staff and then propose it to the Provincial Administration Department for approval.
The department then contacts gun shops to place orders with gun manufacturers or dealers abroad such as in the United States. That makes the Department of Provincial Administration (DPA) the country's No.1 gun importer, via licensed gun shops, although it does not own a single gun import quota.
Gun shops, meanwhile, must have an import quota to order guns from abroad, each quota limited to only 30 pistols and 50 rifles per year. There are about 500 quotas for all gun shops in Thailand. The quota system is the main reason that prices of guns, pistols in particular, are 4-5 times higher than prices abroad, even with an import tax at about 40%.
As to the gang, it appears it bought many guns sold under the welfare gun programme by claiming to be government officials or state enterprise workers applying for purchasing permits or "Por 3" via the district chief officer of Si Racha and a former district chief officer of Sai Yok district in Kanchanaburi, both of whom are among the 16 arrested by police.
The case reflects Thailand's flawed gun control policy. On the one hand, the policy seeks to control the number of guns by imposing an import quota system, making domestic prices jump sky-high due to a gun shortage amid high demand.
On the other, the door is open wide to unlimited importation of guns under the guise of the welfare gun programme, with the DPA playing the role of de facto gun dealer. The ownership of guns bought under the programme cannot be transferred within five years from the purchase date.
Even more ridiculous is there's no limit on how many guns an individual in Thailand can own, provided he/she has the money and no criminal record.
If gun-related violence is to be reduced in Thailand, the welfare gun programme must go. The scheme has been abused for long and does not serve its original purpose of self-protection as most gun buyers barely practise with their guns and lack proper training, which should be a requirement for gun ownership.
Yet this may be easier said than done with so many benefiting from the programme.