Bangkok gun shops: What's inside and why tourists can't buy

Bangkok gun shops: What's inside and why tourists can't buy

Hefty taxes turn most expats off buying guns, while visitors are limited to accessorizing
Bangkok gun shops
Most Thais do not own a gun. Those who do, usually buy "for personal protection, and secondly for their collection. A lot of Thai people like guns," says Polpatr Tanomsup of the Firearms Association of Thailand.

If you have an itchy trigger finger while visiting Thailand it may be difficult to purchase a gun, but wealthy foreigners and Thais who live here can enjoy buying weapons if they possess the correct documents.

Tourists can, however, buy custom-made leather holsters and other accessories at the estimated 80 weapons stores along Burapha Road, just east of the Sala Chalerm Krung Royal Theatre, where the vast majority of Bangkok's gun shops are located. 

Most of the shops have been in business for more than 40 years and welcome walk-in customers, but may discourage photographs of their deadly arsenals.

Bangkok gun shopsShotguns such as these are popular in Thailand for personal protection.Expats and other foreigners working in Thailand can buy guns, but import taxes of around 30 percent -- plus hefty retail profits -- discourage most foreigners.

"Not many foreigners buy guns in Thailand because the price is really expensive, compared to the United States and other countries, because of our importing quota and taxes," says the Firearms Association of Thailand's director of international relations, Polpatr Tanomsup.

"Guns are really expensive, so it is considered a sport for the rich. Like cars, and stuff like that. It is like a Louis Vuitton for guys, or a Hermes bag for guys," Polpatr says. 

"Let's say a Glock in America costs US$500. After it comes here to Thailand, it will probably cost up to 75,000 baht [$2,500]."

Prices are steep because this predominately Buddhist country does not have a major firearms industry, and instead imports most weapons.

"American [guns] are the most popular, because European countries simply do not export to Thailand anymore due to the problem with the three provinces in the south of Thailand, and they say they don't want their guns to be used for the inhumane killing of people," Polpatr says, referring to Malay-Thai Islamists who are fighting for autonomy or independence.

Bangkok gun shopsForeign residents who want to buy a gun need a work permit and house registration in Thailand.Guns from China are less coveted. 

"Consumers for firearms in Thailand are mostly middle to upper class," Polpatr says.

"They want better quality, because if they imported China-made guns, it would not be much cheaper than American-made firearms, and the quality for American is much higher. It is collectible, easy to sell, easy to buy, easy to get parts." 

Sorry tourists, no weapons for you

"For foreigners, if you want to buy a gun, you must have a work permit in Thailand, you must have a house registration in Thailand, and you also need to have a check of your criminal record. 

"If you don't live in Thailand, and you are a traveler, you can buy a holster, leather cases, and cleaning products. Stuff that is not part of the guns. You cannot buy magazines, bullets, or anything about the guns."

A custom-made leather holster takes about one week to make, and costs 1,000 baht.

Also popular among foreigners are pistol grips made of wood, "because they are made in Thailand, and Thailand is known for the unique wood," Polpatr says.

Most Thais do not own a gun. Those who do, usually buy "for personal protection, and secondly for collection. A lot of Thai people like guns."

For protection, "a popular gun will be a 9-millimeter, and probably shotguns, and 22-rimfire rifles," he says, referring to weapons which use a cartridge that has its primer around the edge of the base. 

"If they want a revolver, they will ask for a Smith & Wesson," he says.

"The people who buy here for personal protection are usually people from the provinces, where they live in a rural area, because it is dangerous."

Collectors in Thailand like target shooting and prefer pistols such as a 45-caliber Colt, or an Ed Brown, or a Nighthawk, and may pay up to 200,000 baht. 

"That is for a custom-made pistol, such as Ed Brown or Colt Limited Edition," Polpatr says. 

Fire arms bans and semi-automatics

Bangkok gun shopsBullets on sale in a Bangkok gun shop.More recently, Bangkok's political violence focussed attention on sniper rifles. 

"Seh Daeng, he got shot," Polpatr says, referring to Major General Khattiya "Seh Daeng" Sawatdiphol who was assassinated by an unidentified sniper who shot him in the head during a May 2010 insurrection by pro-election Red Shirts. 

A two-year ban on the public sale of sniper rifles had been imposed one year earlier, in 2009, after violence during a rival Yellow Shirt rally, he said.

In July 2011, the ban was due to be lifted.

"The ban on importing sniper rifles is still in effect, since the government is still not issuing any import license," he says.

The Ministry of Interior is apparently reluctant to lift its ban "to prevent something like the issue with Seh Daeng from happening [again] and damage from such powerful bullets," Polpatr says. 

"Everybody was in favor" of lifting the ban, he says, referring to gun shops hoping to sell the rifles.

But his Firearms Association of Thailand is unable lobby the government to change its policies, and instead informs gun shops about latest laws, he says.

Semi-automatic rifles are available, though. But the sale of fully automatic weapons is illegal except for use by Thai security forces. 

"You can buy an imitation AK-47," Polpatr says, referring to the robust and efficeient semi-automatic assault rifle originally designed by a Russian and prized worldwide among guerrillas and other gunmen.

Thailand's imitation AK-47, however, shoots only 22-caliber bullets, because "you cannot buy a semi-automatic that has a caliber more than 22." 

Off limits for impoverished revenge-seekers 

Gun shops in BangkokTourists can buy holsters and other gun accessories, but bullets are off limits. Foreign residents who want to purchase a gun must fulfill several requirements.

"If you are living here in Thailand, and you want to buy a gun, the first thing you need to do is get your 10 fingers printed, and have a check for your criminal record," Polpatr says.

"If your record is clear, you can fill out the forms which ask about your personal information, where you live, how much money you own, and what you do for a living.  You would need a bank statement and also your work permit, a house registration and an ID." 

Some requirements appear to stop impoverished people -- or anyone seeking revenge -- from gun ownership.

"The law says that when you want to own a gun, it is to protect yourself and your assets. So if you don't have any assets, why would you need a gun to protect yourself? Basically, what they just want to know is, 'Do you have a job, an income'?

"On paper, they will ask, 'Have you been threatened by other people?' And let's say you say, 'Yes.' Then it would be harder for you to get a gun, because they will know you are actually going to use that to kill someone," Polpatr says.

"Usually it will take two weeks to get your criminal record back, and another month to get the license. The criminal record is given free. It will cost six baht for the license," he says. 

Richard S. Ehrlich is from San Francisco, California. He has reported news for international media from Asia since 1978, based in Hong Kong, New Delhi and now Bangkok.

Read more about Richard S. Ehrlich