BANGKOK, Thailand -- If you have an itchy trigger finger in Thailand, you need to be relatively wealthy to buy some of the best quality guns which are made in America and avidly collected.

Tourists meanwhile can 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 90 percent 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.

"Not many foreigners buy guns in Thailand because the price is really expensive, compared to the U.S. 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.

Expats and other foreigners working in Thailand can buy guns, but import taxes of around 30 percent -- plus hefty retail profits -- discourage most foreigners.

"Let's say a Glock in America costs $500 dollars. After it comes here to Thailand, it will probably cost up to 75,000 baht ($2,500)," Polpatr says.

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 the south's minority ethnic Malay-Thai Islamists fighting for autonomy or independence.

Guns from China are less coveted.

"Consumers for firearms in Thailand are mostly middle to upper class. 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 collectable, easy to sell, easy to buy, easy to get parts," Polpatr says.

"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," he says.

"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 may take one week to be made, and cost 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," he says.

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 and 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.

Thailand's most infamous trophy U.S. army issue Colt 45 was given to King Ananda and his brother Bhumibol for target shooting, just after World War 2, by Alexander MacDonald -- who was Bangkok station chief for America's Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency.

On June 5, 1946, King Ananda was found dead from a bullet to the head, in circumstances never fully explained.

"The king was evidently lying on his back at the time of the shot, which apparently came from the Colt given to the brothers by MacDonald," who two months later launched the Bangkok Post newspaper, according to a book titled "King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work."

More recently, Bangkok's political violence drew attention to sniper rifles.

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

Seh Daeng's death sparked widespread clashes between Red Shirts and the military, which left 91 people dead, most of them civilians.

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.

The Ministry of Interior was 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 also available. Sale of fully automatic weapons, however, is illegal except for use by Thai security forces.

"You can by an imitation AK-47," Polpatr says, referring to the 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."

Foreign residents who want to purchase 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.

The American Embassy also visits Bangkok's gun shops, looking for possible violations after U.S. weapons are exported to Thailand.

According to "unclassified" cables written by the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, and published by WikiLeaks, a "Blue Lantern post-shipment end use check on license" involves an embassy official sleuthing around the shops to confirm deals are legit.

A seemingly typical Blue Lantern report in 2009, signed by then-U.S. Ambassador Eric John, included information from Thailand's Commerce Ministry about a Bangkok firearms company, and named its investors and how much cash they spent "to import and sell guns and ammunition."

A U.S. Embassy investigator interviewed one of the Thai investors who displayed permits, serial numbers, invoices and other paperwork and "confirmed the purchase and import of 200 pistols" from America.

"The shop had five staff and a CCTV system, but there were no smoke detection or water-sprinkler systems. The front and back gates were the iron gates. The shop claimed to have two night guards. The upper floors are the living quarters for someone to stay. The shop had three old iron safes with double locks," the U.S. Embassy cable said.

The United Nations and other monitors calculate that Thailand has one of the worst gun murder rates in Asia, topping more than 3,000 annual "homicides" by guns in recent years.

Thailand's toll however dropped after peaking in 2003 at more than 6,434 annual homicides by guns -- a rate of 9.8 per 100,000 people -- according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) which uses police statistics.

Thailand's most recently recorded rate was 4.8 in 2011, virtually equal to the United States which suffered a 4.7 rate that year with 14,612 gun homicides in America, UNODC reported.

"Intentional homicide is defined as unlawful death purposefully inflicted on a person by another person," the UNODC said.

Thailand also scores high for gun suicides, "unintentional" gun deaths, and gun deaths from an "undetermined cause."

According to Reuters, about 6.2 million legal gun licenses were issued by the Interior Ministry in 2012 in Thailand, which has a population of 69 million people.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.

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(Copyright 2013 Richard S Ehrlich)