Thailand: Gun laws strict but ownership high

THAILAND - "Call me Dev," he said. He looked straight out of a Bollywood film - stocky, confident, with a shaven head and a pink open-necked shirt. Dev is a salesman at a shop on Thailand's gun row, Wang Burapha road, which features a string of shops selling a range of guns and accessories.

The guns are two to three times more expensive than those in the United States. "Only rich people buy guns here," said Dev.

Rich people, and The Royal Thai Police. In what has long been a sore point, police are not issued standardised service weapons; they must buy their own, with their own money. But they are assured of discounts; gun shop owners like to keep policemen happy.

The rest of the general public buy cheaper guns in the secondhand or grey market, Dev said.

In theory, Thai laws are very strict. It takes up to two months to obtain a licence to own a firearm.

This includes a background check and fingerprinting. Civilians can own a semi-automatic, but not an automatic.

But on a per capita basis, Thailand has more guns than most countries. There are 6.2 million registered guns in the country, according to the Royal Thai Police.

Of those, 3.7 million are "short guns" or handguns.That means roughly one in every 100 Thai citizens owns a licensed gun. The University of Sydney's Gunpolicy.org website puts the total rate of private gun ownership - legal and illegal - in Thailand at 15.6 firearms per 100 people.

Gun crime rates are also the highest in the region.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, in 2011, guns were used in 5.3 murders per 100,000 people in Thailand, placing the country in the same company as South Africa and Colombia.

Stray bullets from gunfights are not rare. On a late night in September last year, over 50 bullets were fired by rival teen gangs at one another on busy Ekkamai street, just off Sukhumvit, a key arterial road. Miraculously, nobody was killed.

And across the country, shooting ranges offer "set" menus where anyone can fire handguns, rifles and even an M-16 assault rifle.

nirmal@sph.com.sg

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