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Thailand gets tougher on guns after child-care massacre that killed dozens

Cremation ceremonies were held Oct. 11 for the children and others who died in a mass killing attack at a day-care center in northeast Thailand. (Video: Reuters)
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Top officials in Thailand are seeking to tighten the nation’s gun laws after a former police officer killed 36 people, including 24 children, in one of the country’s worst mass slaughters in recent memory.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha ordered authorities this week to revoke gun licenses from people determined to have behaved in a way that “threatens society” or “creates chaos or unrest,” government spokesperson Anucha Burapachaisri said in a statement. The prime minister also ordered a crackdown on sales and possession of illegal guns and told officials to step up drug testing among government officials.

The Oct 6. massacre at a day-care center took place in a country that already had relatively restrictive regulations on firearms. There is no automatic right to own a gun, and permits are not allowed for people who have been convicted of serious crimes, those who have been deemed mentally ill or people with no income. Each gun requires a permit, and applicants must explain why they seek a license.

But Thai civilians still hold an estimated 10.3 million legal and illegal guns, according to the 2018 Small Arms Survey, the most of any country in Southeast Asia, and gun-control efforts have been challenged by significant smuggling. Guns have reportedly crossed Thailand’s border as a spillover from Myanmar’s civil war, and Bangkok has been battling an armed insurgency in the country’s south for decades. Government officials, who can purchase firearms at a discount, also have a relatively easy path to obtaining guns.

Concerns about access to weapons came to the fore after last week’s knife-and-gun rampage. Its death toll exceeded that of the 2012 shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman killed 26, including 20 children. The Thai attacker had been fired from the police force after being caught with amphetamines, authorities said. He killed dozens and wounded many more at a day-care center in the rural northeastern region of Nong Bua Lamphu before killing his wife, their 3-year-old son and himself in his home.

Thailand has long struggled with small-scale gun violence but was still “rocked to its core” by the attack, said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. “But there have been so many guns in Thailand — this place has been awash with guns for years. … I’m not surprised this is finally happening.”

As the world moves on, Myanmar confronts a mounting, hidden toll

Corrupt government officials are suspected of contributing to the spread of illegal guns. Earlier this year, a senior local official was arrested on suspicion of trafficking hundreds of firearms and thousands of rounds of ammunition, Thai media reported. The Oct. 6 shooting is the second high-profile massacre perpetrated by a person with security force ties since early 2020, when a soldier fired rounds into a Buddhist temple, a mall and other public spaces, killing dozens.

Thailand logged roughly three firearm-related deaths per 100,000 people in 2019, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, against about four for the United States.

“There is an increasing trend of gun violence, but policies for controlling both legal and illegal access to guns are not concretely formalized,” said Krisanaphong Poothakool, a professor at Rangsit University, near Bangkok, who served in the Royal Thai Police for more than two decades.

After the Oct. 6 shooting, authorities moved to recall guns from officials who have misused them or behaved aggressively on duty, the state-affiliated Thai News Agency reported. Officials with gun licenses will also need to undergo regular mental health review under the new plans.

But it remains to be seen whether the new measures will amount to a serious effort to tackle firearm smuggling and gun violence. At a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Prayuth, the prime minister, emphasized the purported role of narcotics in last week’s rampage — police at first said the shooter was on drugs, though an initial autopsy reportedly found no traces — even as he pledged to better enforce gun laws, the Bangkok Post reported.

“This will be a watershed moment in Thailand’s history because of what happened and where they’re going to go from here,” said Jeffrey Simon, a terrorism expert at the University of California at Los Angeles. “We have seen this sort of shock occur, unfortunately, in many other countries.”

Kasulis Cho reported from Seoul. Vasapa reported from Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand.