The fatal shooting by a 14-year-old in a popular Bangkok mall set off an anguished soul-searching over Thailand’s gun culture on Wednesday, a day after the third high-profile shooting spree in nearly four years killed two people.
Thailand has one of the highest rates of gun ownership and gun homicide in Asia, though it pales in comparison to the levels in the United States. But the spectacle of dozens of people running for their lives in one of Bangkok’s most popular shopping centers has shaken many Thais, and reignited a debate over what needs to change to prevent another such shooting.
More broadly, many Thais, both in government and the public, say there needs to be a long-term solution to the epidemic of gun violence, which experts say is fueled by millions of guns in circulation and the weak enforcement of weapon laws.
Paul Quaglia, the Bangkok-based chief executive officer of PQA Associates, a risk assessment firm, said he would characterize Thailand’s gun regulation as “nonexistent.”
“There isn’t any systemic effort here to register guns,” said Mr. Quaglia, a former station chief for the C.I.A. “The problem in Thailand is that the country is awash in guns. They’re freely available and easily obtained, both licitly and illicitly.”
Of Thailand’s 7.2 million privately owed guns, only 6 million are registered, according to estimates from gunpolicy.org, which tracks weapons worldwide.
On Wednesday, the national police chief, Pol. Gen. Torsak Sukvimol, said he had taken a step to address a “loophole in the law”: In Thailand, buyers of “blank guns,” the weapon that the teenager in Tuesday’s shooting used, do not need permits.
Police General Sukvimol said he has called for the immediate arrest of illegal online weapon sellers, and that he wants “blank guns” to be classified as weapons that require the same amount of scrutiny given to regular firearms.
Many guns are sold by government officials or law enforcement officers, who are allowed to buy as many weapons as they want from the government at a steep discount. As a result, a black market of firearms thrives, boosted by an arms smuggling trade between Myanmar and Thailand. Although Thailand has many gun laws on the books, experts say, a lack of enforcement can render them toothless.
Parit Wacharasindhu, a member of Parliament from the opposition Move Forward Party, called on the government on Wednesday to improve Thailand’s gun licensing system and to shut down the illegal guns trade.
“Even though the gun used to commit yesterday’s incident was a modified gun, since Thailand has the third-highest gun-related deaths in Asia, this sends a clear signal that it might be necessary for us to reconsider the whole gun ownership system,” Mr. Parit said.
Would-be gun buyers in Thailand must undergo a background check and provide a reason for ownership. But while there are restrictions on the number of guns and ammunition a civilian can buy, there are no limits placed on government employees.
Gun permits are available for life, unlike in many other countries that impose expiry dates. Many district offices provide little follow-through on verifying the identity of the original permit holder.
Tuesday’s shooting has especially rattled Thais because of the backdrop: Siam Paragon, at the heart of downtown Bangkok, is a common shopping and meeting spot for many city residents.
The previous mass shootings in Thailand — in a shopping mall in northeastern Korat in 2020 and a day-care center in the northeastern town of Nong Bua Lamphu — were national tragedies. But they also occurred in places that were far away from cities — locales that many Thais could not identify with. But a tragedy at a capital city mall, popular with tourists and locals alike, has resonated.
“This will hit home for a lot of people in a way that the shootings in the provinces may not have done,” said Ken Mathis Lohatepanont, an independent political analyst who writes about Thai politics.
Gisele Chang, 32, a Taiwanese studying Thai in Bangkok, was in the bathroom on the mezzanine floor of Siam Paragon when she heard a loud noise. At first, she thought it was an iron plate falling. Then, she heard screaming.
She peeked out of her toilet stall and saw three people lying outside, covered in blood. She quickly sent a message to her classmates to call the police. When help finally arrived, all the women in the bathroom emerged crying, Ms. Chang recalled.
“We held each other’s hands and walked out together, even though these were people we didn’t know,” Ms. Chang wrote by text. “There were Koreans, Chinese, Hong Kongers and Thais. To spend those terrifying 30 to 40 minutes in the same space and to see them alive, it felt good.”
One of the two victims was a 34-year-old Chinese national, Zhao Jinnan, a mother of 5-year-old twin girls, according to The Southern Metropolis Daily, a Chinese newspaper that interviewed Ms. Zhao’s niece. The girls had traveled to Bangkok with their mother on vacation and were due to fly home on Wednesday.
The other victim was Ma Moe Myint, a 31-year-old woman from Myanmar. She worked in a toy store and had gone to the mall to help her employer deposit some money. Her employer told Thai media that she was her family’s sole breadwinner.
Even though their pace has accelerated in recent years, mass shootings remain unusual in Thailand. After previous shootings, there were many discussions about what to do with guns. Committees were formed and, in the most recent instance, blame was attributed to drugs. Still, no large-scale reforms have been carried out.
“Given that it has happened three times already within such a short span of time, we, as a society, need to reassess whether this is more of a systematic issue, rather than just isolated, unfortunate incidents,” said Chanatip Tatiyakaroonwong, a Bangkok-based human rights researcher for Amnesty International.
Chanyapatch Wongwiwat, 30, a digital media planner, said she ran “as fast as I could” out of Siam Paragon after her colleague called her on Tuesday to say a shooter was downstairs.
“I never expected this to happen in Bangkok, in the city center where the security is pretty tight,” said Ms. Chanyapatch. Although she said she had never thought about gun laws before, now she says there should be tighter limits.
“I think we need more on gun control, stricter safety measures at some locations,” she said.
Jane Oscar, 35, a tourist from Jakarta, said she was at a boutique in Siam Paragon when she saw people running. She walked over to a store employee to ask what was happening when she heard the gunshots. “It was super-loud and super-clear,” she said.
“I think I am not the only person who is still feeling this, but the PTSD feels so real,” she said. “Until now, the gunshots are still ringing.”
Siyi Zhao contributed reporting from Seoul, and Ryn Jirenuwat contributed reporting from Bangkok.