The killing of a senior highway police officer at the house of an influential kamnan in Nakhon Pathom last week raises alarm bells about the state welfare gun scheme.
The pistol which the suspect used belonged to an officer who purchased it using the scheme. Last month, that officer sold it to Praween "Kamnan Nok" Chanklai, who reportedly gave it to Thananchai Manmak, 45, the suspect who fled the scene and was later killed.
While the police are focusing on solving the crime and the government is bent on combatting local mafia clans, the gun policy has been drifting off the radar.
Of course, this has never been a big issue for local politicians or policymakers despite Thailand having the highest gun ownership rate in Asean, with more than 10.3 million firearms registered. The rate of gun ownership among civilians is 15.10 per 100 persons, putting the kingdom second in Asia after Pakistan.
This doesn't mean that buying guns in Thailand is easy. Apart from the tight regulations affecting buyers, there is a strict quota system under which each gun shop is allowed to import a limited number of handguns and rifles.
But on top of this quota system is the gun welfare scheme, under which the Ministry of Interior is authorised to import unlimited amounts of guns, particularly handguns, into the country for policemen or staff of other state agencies who need them for self-protection or to protect their property.
Any state agency can initiate such a programme for its staff and propose it to the Provincial Administration Department for approval. In a way, this makes the Ministry of Interior the nation's largest gun importer.
Guns under this programme are 40% cheaper than the normal market price. More importantly, there is no limit on the number someone can buy under this scheme or from ordinary gun shops.
This means eligible officials can buy and own as many guns as they can afford, provided they have a clean criminal record. The only safeguard under the gun welfare scheme is that the weapon cannot be sold or transferred to another person within the first five years.
There have been no psychological tests conducted on gun holders, however. And there is no effective tracing system to prevent illegal transfers of these firearms. As such it is no surprise that many guns from this scheme have fallen into the wrong hands. The cop killing in Nakhon Pathom last week is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many reports of criminal cases where guns from this scheme were used.
One blatant example occurred in June last year, when police cracked down on a gun-trafficking gang with a series of coordinated raids in five provinces including Bangkok. Many of the confiscated guns originated from the welfare gun scheme.
Politicians have urged the government to scrap the scheme or otherwise make it harder to obtain firearms, but those calls have fallen on deaf ears. The Srettha government must seize on this opportunity to fix the programme -- or better still, scrap it altogether based on the logic it is fundamentally flawed.
It is the duty of government agencies to provide guns to these officials and police officers so they can work safely, but they must ensure they are returned once the personnel are off duty.
If these officials want to own guns, they must pay taxes like other consumers. Knowing the problem but doing nothing about it would make the government complicit in putting guns in the wrong hands.