Gunning for firearms
Despite strict codes, Thailand's black market thrives in the open
"If you have a gun, shoot me," shouted Preecha Kunthong before he was hit with several bullets between the eyes and killed on May 19 in Saraburi's Muang district while buying a packet of instant coffee.
The 59-year-old man, who had that morning gone to breakfast with a friend at the local market, allegedly fell into an argument with the shooter as he stood in line at a convenience store opposite Saraburi Hospital.
This story isn't an unusual one in the country with one of the highest gun homicide rates in Asia, and the second highest rate in Southeast Asia.
Reports say the police are still investigating Preecha's murder. Chances are, if investigators are depending on registration records to trace the bullet to the owner, they won't find the killer, either.
That's because almost half of the guns in existence Thailand are believed to be unregistered. According to GunPolicy.org, the total number of privately owned guns is over 10 million in Thailand, with just 6 million of those legally registered -- meaning 4 million are potentially left unaccounted for.
Reasons for illegal gun ownership vary: A relative could die and leave their firearms to their family, which then does not go through the process of re-registering them to the new owner. Some gun owners just don't want to foot the bill of purchasing a legally registered gun.
Others, such as hitmen or drug pushers, simply want a firearm that can't be traced to any legal registry.
According to Chutimas Suksai, a firearms researcher who has worked with organisations including Nonviolence International and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Thailand, many of the gun homicides -- and homicides that occur with unregistered guns -- in Thailand are results of arguments between lovers.
It's not unusual for angry lovers to shoot their partners if they find them cheating with another person. "You hear about this happening in the Thai media a few times a month," says Ms Chutimas.
It also doesn't cost much to hire a person to get the job done for you.
Shattered glass: A bullet hole is seen on a car's windshield after a shooting in Samut Prakan's Bang Phli district.
The cheapest hit could cost as little as 10,000 baht, but a high profile case could cost upwards of 100,000 baht. "Depends on the difficulty," she says. "If you use the cheap guns from a website and the guy is just riding a motorcycle in your village, that will probably be 10,000 baht."
No matter what the reason is for purchasing a firearm, however, the fact still stands: To legally buy a gun, you need cash -- money that a citizen living off of the average Thai wage of around 30,000 baht per month might have difficulty coming up with.
In addition to having the finances, you need to have the right reason. Prospective buyers are not only looking at a high cost to own a gun, but also need to get through an extensive vetting process that includes a personal interview with a Ministry of Interior official.
"In order to own a gun, you need to have property or assets to protect, or live in a dangerous neighbourhood," says Ms Chutimas.
"It's a status symbol," she says.
Women, in particular, might be inclined to purchase a gun "off the books" due to these stringent regulations. Women aren't often seen as having assets to protect, so they may be more likely to be rejected for a gun licence, she says.
However, there is still a big gap in statistics on guns. There are currently no firm statistics on the gender and demographics of gun owners in Thailand, and general estimations of ownership vary pretty widely between research organisations and government figures.
Ease of obtaining illicit guns
On Feb 4 last year, Italian Development Plc president and construction tycoon Premchai Karnasuta was arrested for poaching and killing a rare black leopard in Kanchanaburi province with three of his peers. But when police searched the camp -- and Premchai's home -- it wasn't just animal carcasses that they found; Premchai was in possession of 43 firearms, six of which were unlawfully obtained or unlicensed.
In Thailand, the "black market" for firearms isn't out of reach, even for those who aren't development bigwigs. Interested buyers don't have to venture too far into the web to find individual sellers ready to sell their old or homemade guns, sometimes at a discounted price.
All a gun enthusiast needs to do is log into their Facebook or Twitter account and look up a variation of a popular firearm model, and they're likely to find private sellers posting photos of their guns from their social media pages, listing prices and personal contact information. There are also websites devoted to illicit firearms sales.
Some of the firearms were once legally produced and registered, while others are what are commonly referred to as "Thai-made" guns -- or guns that are produced within Thailand.
While some of the social media posts are attached to licensed sellers and shops, others are being sold by individuals who give no indication that they are licensed to sell.
"You don't even have to go onto the dark web," says Ms Chutimas as she scrolls through questionable firearm ads.
Showing off: Firearms sit on display behind the front window of Mr Somchai's gun shop in the Rattanakosin area of Bangkok.
While there is a lot of focus on regulating gun owners and sellers who go through the standard legal process, gun salesmen and owners who skirt the paperwork don't have much to answer to.
"The most that happens is their pages are shut down," she says. Although there are have been instances of authorities nabbing "Thai-made" and off-books gun sellers, these arrests are few and far between, and the ones that have taken place have been directed toward large-scale sales operations.
Additionally, even if a gun is purchased legally, there are often local gunsmiths who can modify the firearms. If you want to learn how to build a gun yourself, there are also YouTube pages which give step-by-step instructions in Thai on how to construct a firearm.
Somchai, a gun shop owner who wishes to remain anonymous, says that these modified and Thai-made guns are dangerous, as they're known for blowing up and malfunctioning.
"They call it thai-pradit, or Thai-made," he says. "They're very poor quality. You can shoot that but it might end up hurting you. The gun could end up exploding in your hand."
Nonetheless, purchasing one only takes a few clicks and maybe a phone call.
The cost of being a salesman
Selling isn't an easy game either.
Bangkok's Rattanokasin neighbourhood in the Old City is home to over 80 registered gun shops and several streetside stalls selling firearm accessories. On a weekday afternoon, there's no big city bustle to this area. The streets are quiet and most of the shops are empty.
The shops are small, too. The majority are comprised of just a single room, with a few guns on display in the windows and behind glass cases inside.
Sellers are limited to one sales licence per person, with each licence only allowing the import of 50 rifles and 30 handguns per year. That means to make this business work, or sell more than the allotted number of imports per year, sellers might have to get the whole family involved.
Mr Somchai's shop is also located in this neighbourhood, where he pools licences with his father and his wife. All three have individual licences to import, because at just 30 permitted handgun imports -- his most popular product -- per licence per year, it would be nearly impossible to make a comfortable profit.
After a gun is shipped in, usually from the United States, the seller on the Thai end is obligated to pay a 30% import tax, on top of 7% VAT -- increasing the cost of the firearm by almost a half before it even hits the shelves in Thailand. That makes it significantly more costly for the buyer, and more difficult for the shop owner to sell.
The process of importing firearms is also long, arduous and expensive. "This is a business of passion," he says, when asked about what keeps him in the gun trade.
It can take up to six months to get all the necessary approvals from the parties involved, and get access to the guns. After applying for an import licence, Mr Somchai will generally wait around a month to a month and a half for the initial approval.
After that, the documents are translated, certified and sent to his supplier in the United States, where the information goes through another round of evaluations. Only then can the firearms be sent to Thailand, where the product itself will go through another heavy round of inspections.
"On a very good day, it's three months, but on a bad day, it can be up to six months until we get the guns,'' he says.
Even once he gets through the arduous import process, which must be repeated each year, there's still no guarantee he'll be making steady cash. Sometimes, Mr Somchai will go multiple weeks without making a sale. In May alone, he didn't make his first sale until the week that I visited him, on May 13. "It's the low season," he says. "Between the months of March and June, we hardly make any sales. I don't know why."
Some of Mr Somchai's customers are farmers coming in from outside of the city, who are looking for a firearm to use to protect their land and livestock. However, the rise in popularity of shooting competitions and sport over the past five years has shifted his clientele from being primarily farmers and owners looking to protect their assets, to a more regular stream of wealthy Thais looking for a gun to shoot for sport.
In the past five years, he says, business has improved due to an increased interest in the shooting competitions which take place all over the country.
Fatal upgrades: A streetside stall in the Rattanakosin area sells knives and firearm accessories.
But what keeps Mr Somchai in the business isn't the cash flow. Mr Somchai, a gun enthusiast himself, owns 20 guns. He usually keeps them in the back of his shop to have as a collection to admire, unless he's taking them out to the shooting range.
"I love the gun, I love the mechanism, how it works," he says. "It's excellent, it's like a nice watch, you know. When you see a nice watch you say 'wow'."
He loves handmade and antique guns, particularly from Italy.
"Up to about 30 years ago, they [firearms] were handmade. They're using the machine now. You can see the guns that were made by machines, they're quite different from the ones that were made by humans. The function, the fitting [of the handmade guns], everything is so much better."
He takes pride in his work. He says his clientele find him because of his unique taste and selection. "I choose the guns to import and sell the guns that I personally like," he says.
"I think I dare say that my tastes are different than other shops. Most of the people are selling old guns, like an old revolver or a .38. Most people like that. I don't like that."
But Mr Somchai prefers to cater to a more refined clientele -- the kind that is willing to spend 30,000 baht on a single handgun. For him, the illegal trade of firearms in Thailand is a stain on his industry of choice.
"People who are buying and selling those guns are mostly criminals," he says. "They [illegal sellers] make us look bad. They make us look like we are the same person with them. But we're not. Our business is controlled at every step."