Deadly Thai mall shooting reignites gun control questions

Thailand recorded almost 1,300 gun deaths in 2019, the latest year data is available
AFP | Jack TAYLOR

THAILAND - A deadly shooting in a Bangkok mall allegedly by a 14-year-old has again exposed Thailand’s gun violence problems, with police selling firearms onto the black market and a youth culture that celebrates weapons among the driving factors.

Two people were killed and five others wounded on Tuesday when a shooter opened fire at the upmarket Siam Paragon mall in the heart of the Thai capital, sending terrified shoppers fleeing into the streets.

Friday marks a year since a former policeman murdered 24 children and 12 adults at a nursery in northern Thailand using a knife and legally owned handgun bought under a government scheme.

That incident prompted shock around the world and government promises on gun control, but the kingdom is still awash with firearms and deadly shootings are reported in Thai media almost every week.

New interior minister Anutin Charnvirakul had promised "tougher restrictions" on firearm licences even before the mall shooting, and National Police Chief Torsak Sukwimol called Tuesday for increased mental health checks.

But similar promises have been made in the past to little avail, and experts are sceptical effective action will be taken.

Thailand has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the region, with 10 million firearms in circulation according to the GunPolicy.org website -- roughly one for every seven Thais.

Cultural norms valorise guns from a young age
AFP/File | Lillian SUWANRUMPHA

The result is brutal: Thailand recorded almost 1,300 gun deaths in 2019, the latest year data is available -- compared to around 130 in neighbouring Vietnam, where the population is around 40 percent higher.

Boonwara Sumano of the Thailand Development Research Institute pointed to cultural norms that valorise guns from a young age.

"It's very common among students of vocational education institutes to build their own guns," she told AFP.

Police said the Bangkok mall shooter appears to have used a blank-firing pistol modified to shoot live rounds.

"The underpinning factor in Thai society is the norm that you need to look strong, look powerful, and guns are the way of showing that," Boonwara said.

 

- Cheap gun scheme -

 

Thailand strictly controls arms imports, with merchants restricted to small annual quotas and hobbled by high prices.

To legally purchase a gun, buyers must be older than 20, undergo a background check and give a reason for ownership, such as self-defence or hunting.

But a government-run so-called gun welfare programme has seen hundreds of thousands of firearms flow into the kingdom -- mainly from the United States.

"The real issue was the gun welfare programme," Michael Picard, an independent researcher who focuses on small arms proliferation and corruption, told AFP.

Under the scheme, government personnel are given discounts on personal guns and buy them directly through their agencies, rather than through the civilian licensing process.

And while there are restrictions on the number of guns and ammunition a private individual can buy, there are no limits under the welfare programme.

"This leads to a dangerous status quo in which some cops sell their discounted guns onto the black market for profit," Picard said.

Thailand has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the region
AFP/File | CHALINEE THIRASUPA

After the nursery massacre, the police announced the indefinite suspension of the programme, telling reporters that unscrupulous officers were reselling firearms.

But a police source told AFP the scheme remained alive and well.

"Junior and low-ranking policemen could not afford the guns," they said.

Privately bought firearms would set them back 100,000 baht ($2,700), they said, while guns bought via the welfare programme were only 30,000-40,000 baht.

And many officers use their own weapons to avoid heavy fines if an official firearm is damaged or lost.

"Policemen who want guns can bring their own cash or loan money from police cooperatives," the source added.

 

- 'Guns win' -

 

Promised changes in the wake of the nursery shooting -- including regular mental health evaluations and stricter licence restrictions -- have not materialised.

Officers undergo mental health assessments before joining, but checks afterwards are sporadic.

"During (their) service it is up to their superior who can request their own men to check from time to time, or policemen can do it individually by themselves," the source said.

Police officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

A former policeman murdered 24 children and 12 adults at a nursery in northern Thailand using a knife and legally owned handgun
AFP/File | Lillian SUWANRUMPHA

Academic and former police lieutenant Kritsanapong Phutrakul told AFP it was rare for any officer to have his firearm taken away.

Nursery attacker Panya Khamrab carried out part of his assault with a legally purchased weapon, police said at the time. The weapon was not confiscated -- despite him having been fired for drug abuse.

Researcher Boonwara said that in a country undermined by repeated military overthrows of democratically elected governments, citizens have turned elsewhere for security, legal or illegal.

"It's like guns win in the end," she said.

 

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