BANGKOK: Thailand arguably has a gun problem, but sensational headlines about the country being a regional, even global, leader of gun violence are misleading and dubious.
Though it’s difficult to know the extent of the issue for sure, both official and independent data trends indicate that, rates of armed violence are falling in the Southeast Asian country and are not the highest in the region as many have claimed, even if they remain significant.
But, many of Thailand’s gun homicides are clearly preventable, and a system that allows for the ready availability of firearms must be rethought.
WHY MANY THAIS OWN GUNS
Thailand is home to a vibrant gun culture and trade. Bangkok has a neighbourhood entirely devoted to selling firearms and their accessories, where tens of shops offer top-of-the-line and often eccentrically-styled handguns, shotguns and rifles.
According to the Ministry of Interior, there are more than 6 million registered firearms in Thailand. Geneva-based think tank Small Arms 2017 Survey also estimates that the country is home to a further 4.1 million illicit firearms, meaning a total of over 10 million civilian firearms, or 15.1 guns per 100 people – by far the highest rate in Southeast Asia.
Thailand is also consistently one of the top importers of non-military firearms in the region. The most recent UN customs data recorded that Thailand imported about US$21 million worth of presumably non-military firearms. This figure is consistent year-to-year, though it is often higher (in 2014 it was US$30 million).
Perceptions of public safety – or a lack thereof – appears to be one of the driving reasons for owning a gun in Thailand. Many gun owners and dealers cite personal protection as a driving reason for gun ownership, while some others are still doubtful of the police’s ability to ensure public safety, especially in a society where guns are common and and allegations of corruption are rife.
DEATH BY FIREARMS DATA DIFFERS GREATLY
But Thailand also has a unique and striking pattern of gun violence. Firearms are the most common means in homicide cases in Thailand by all accounts, though the numbers differ.
The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Global Mortality Database, which relies on statistics disclosed by national health ministries that collect mortality reports from health professionals, mortuaries and hospitals, found 1,971 homicides in Thailand in 2015, of which 64.4 per cent (1,269) were committed with a gun.
Yet, overall homicide figures from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which relies on criminal cases of homicide (or “murder”) reported by law enforcement authorities, in 2015 reported 2,387 homicides, though it does not publish separate gun homicide statistics for Thailand.
The University of Washington’s Global Burden of Disease (GBD) programme considers all the above, but also factors in the risk of under- or misreporting by national authorities. It thus provides a typically higher estimate of what they deem the figure for gun homicide is more likely to be.
Still, its 2015 report places the proportion of homicides caused by firearms at roughly the same as the WHO’s report though it suggests the absolute numbers are higher. It estimates 4,144 homicides in 2015, of which more than twice as many (2,561, or 61.8 per cent) were by firearm.
It’s worth bearing in mind that these sources count gun deaths from armed conflict separately, as the driving factors and circumstances causing these deaths are unique and often isolated. For the same reason, other, often overlooked forms of firearm mortality such as gun suicide, legal intervention, terrorism and unintentional shootings are also counted separately.
FALLING GUN HOMICIDES IN THAILAND
How does Thailand compare with the rest of Southeast Asia?
Out of 100,000 Thais, 3.71 individuals were murdered with a firearm in 2017. In comparison, the Philippines’ per capita gun homicide rate is more than double that, with 9.20 per 100,000 people murdered in the same year with a firearm, according to the same data sources.
The Philippines is the only other country in the region that has a high rate of civilian gun ownership, though its civilian firearm possession rate is only about one-third of Thailand’s.
Thailand’s gun homicide rate is also significantly lower than that of the United States, where in 2016 the rate of gun homicide per 100,000 people was 4.46, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, there is even reason to be cautiously optimistic that, based on the data, Thailand is safer from civilian gun violence than ever before.
Despite large discrepancies between the datasets, each shows a strikingly similar trend: Over the past two decades, the number of reported homicides (including those with a gun) in Thailand has fallen dramatically, by about half. This downward trend is broadly shared by other high- and middle-income nations around the world, and is likely connected with Thailand’s rapid development and the expansion of state power, though this requires further study.
All of this having been said, reliance on raw numbers does a disservice by reducing the victims and ineffable family and community loss of gun violence to columns of statistics.
What is so staggering about gun violence in Thailand is not how many people die, but the way in which homicides happen.
HOW HOMICIDE HAPPENS HIGHLIGHTS PROBLEMATIC ISSUE
High-profile gun homicides and commentaries thereon dot the English news in Thailand. Notable stories include the homicide of a French tourist by an off-duty police officer, the killing of an entire family by an offended husband, an Indian tourist caught in the crossfire of a criminal shoot-out, and several instances of ”jilted” lovers (always male) killing a current or former significant other.
These are only a small fraction of the gun-related personal tragedies reported in Thai media. Each major publication seems to run daily stories about shocking killings triggered by a seemingly trivial cause.
These news reports give the impression that in Thailand, the perceived “loss of face” can quickly escalate to a loss of life, especially in a society that is pervasively armed with lethal weapons that often empower their users to violently resolve deep personal conflicts that underlie minor day-to-day confrontations.
It has also been written that widespread belief in karma and destiny circumvent a sense of collective outrage or dissatisfaction with gun violence, as so many shootings are seen simply as isolated realisations of misfortune, rather than part of a problematic trend which implicates a popular and thriving subculture and pastime.
Yet these assessments appear anecdotal; studying whether they fuel a culture of gun ownership as well as a societal indifference to violence would be a useful first step in developing life-saving public policy.
What is really needed to save lives is reliable research into such public perceptions of safety, the motivations for, and practices of gun owners, the widespread availability of lethal means and the degree to which firearm laws are enforced.
Michael Picard is a researcher specialising in national gun control approaches and armed violence. He is research director for GunPolicy.org, a UN-funded project of the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health that publishes data on firearms. He is currently conducting research in Southeast Asia.