Thailand’s gun culture: weak oversight and an affinity for firearms sustain ongoing violence

Photo: Torange

A thriving underground market and a robust gun culture empowers criminals and keeps dangerous weapons within easy reach in Thailand.

By Zachary Frye

Thailand has a problem with its gun culture. It has the highest gun ownership rate in Southeast Asia, and the second-highest gun-related death rate, second only to the Philippines.

For the region, Thailand’s gun culture is an outlier. In 2016, it placed 11th in the world for total gun-related deaths, edging out places generally perceived to be more dangerous, like South Africa, Iraq and Pakistan.

Gun deaths are often the result of domestic or personal disputes, as opposed to random violence or gang activity. But Thailand’s ingrained gun culture, coupled with a vast underground market that makes guns readily available, makes it difficult to stem the violence.

Laws are strong, but the underground firearm trade limits their effectiveness

According to Thailand’s National Statistical Office, the reported rate of attempted murder –including those involving guns – halved over the past decade. In 2007, there were just under 8,000 attempted murders in the country; in 2016 there were 3,300.

Most middle-income countries have seen similar reductions in violence. Rapid development and the subsequent expansion of state power contributes to a downward trend. However, in Thailand, gun violence remains a scourge.

In 2016, gun violence resulted in 1,729 deaths in Thailand. By comparison, there were only 74 gun-related deaths in Malaysia. In Indonesia, which has a population four times larger than Thailand’s, there were 1,200 total murders, many of which did not involve a firearm.

In response to the violence, the Thai government implements a zero-tolerance legal strategy – at least for those who get caught. Over 30,000 people are sitting in Thai jails for gun-related offences, including for firearm possession. But significant gaps in illegal weapon enforcement undermine the government’s efforts.

A healthy domestic black market is driving the surge in illegal firearms ownership. There are over ten million guns in Thailand, but only six million are registered.

Too often, illegal guns are sold in the open on popular social media sites. Chutimas Suksai, a firearms researcher with Nonviolence International and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Thailand, described the ease of finding a weapon online.

“You don’t even have to go onto the dark web. The most that happens is their pages are shut down.”  

For those without a criminal history, the process to purchase a legal firearm takes just a few weeks to complete. A prospective buyer only needs to fill out some paperwork at his local government office and produce a bank statement and letter from their employer to get their hands on a gun.

Gun control is an unpopular political platform

Despite the high rates of violence and a thriving illicit firearm trade, there isn’t a broad push from Thai society to change the status quo.

With most of the political opposition in Thailand embroiled in battles to relieve the country of military rule, there is less focus on other important social issues, including gun violence.

Children’s Day 2012 at the Chiang Mai Air Force base
Photo: Takeaway/Wikimedia Commons

More troubling still, gun ownership has become a status symbol, further ingraining the firearm culture.

“A person who has a gun should keep it at home but, at present, it has become something to boast about… if one is to be respected, he must have a gun in his possession,” says an unnamed district officer in an interview with researchers. “It has emphasized the wrong values in Thai society.”

Thailand needs to reduce the number of guns on its streets

Regardless of law enforcement’s efforts, it is still too easy to get a hold of guns in Thailand, even if it’s done legally. To improve the situation, there should be a stronger emphasis on gun crime prevention.

Licensing laws should work to reduce firearms deaths, not the enforcement of arbitrary requirements. Instead of focusing on basic background checks and financial stability, there needs to be stricter attention on a prospective buyer’s justification for owning a weapon.

The self-defence rationale, currently valid under Thai law, should be repealed. It is too opaque to merit good faith that the weapon won’t be used to harm another human being.

Barriers to ownership won’t materialise until guns are viewed differently in Thai society. At the heart of Thailand’s massive gun circulation is the notion that they are acceptable tools for ordinary citizens.

In order to reduce the high number of gun-related crimes, the Thai government needs to incentivise fewer guns on the streets. Japan’s success in curbing gun violence could be a helpful model for future reforms.

Restrictions on the number of gun shops in each province and the banning of most deadly weapons, including handguns, would go a long way toward reducing unnecessary deaths. Strict mental health checks, including interviews with family and co-workers, and the completion of a shooting range test with high-level accuracy, are important precautionary steps that have been successfully implemented in Japan.

Other measures, like gun buybacks, tax incentives, and public education campaigns would also positively contribute. To advance meaningful progress, the country will need to acknowledge the inherent dangers of gun culture first. There are pathways towards a safer Thai society for all, but they rest on changing the public’s attitude toward gun ownership.

About the Author

Zachary Frye
Zach is a writer and researcher based in Bangkok. He studied Political Science at DePaul University and International Relations at Harvard. Interests include human rights, political affairs, and the intersections of culture and religion.