What the US can learn from Australia about gun control

Australia’s response to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre offers a model for the US to emulate.

The Sandy Hook school shooting is the 15th mass shooting in the US in 2012. With the state of American gun laws, it is unsurprising that you are forty times more likely to be shot there than in the United Kingdom.

But here’s the really shocking thing. Horrific as such tragedies are, they form a minute proportion of the number of people who will be killed by guns this year in the US. While at least 88 people have been killed in mass shootings so far this year (defined as leading to the deaths of at least four people), nearly 10,000 Americans are murdered each year by guns. The vast majority of those killed are in isolated attacks.

And even this number is under half of those killed in the US each year by guns. By far the most common cause of American gun fatalities is suicides. Death by firearms is the fastest growing method of suicide in the country. Consider, too, that there were 592 firearm accident deaths in 2008, the last year for which there are statistics. While periodic massacres dominate the media coverage of guns in the US, they are merely the most egregious examples of America’s gun laws.

No one would pretend changing these would be easy; the BBC's Justin Webb said that any attempt to lower gun ownership could result in "something like a new civil war" The National Rifle Association has over four million members; its "Political Victory Fund" supports "pro-gun" candidates – and provides a reminder to all others of what would be unleashed against them if they voted in favour of anti-gun legislation. Consider, too, that civilian ownership of guns has increased by almost 100 million between 1995 and today; by 2020, there could be more guns in the US than people.

Yet the raw and graphic nature of the tragedy has created a more real opportunity to introduce meaningful gun-control laws than the mere statistic of 30,000 people killed by guns a year ever could. Australia, a country with a love of ‘freedom’ and guns that bears some resemblance to the US, may provide lessons on how this could be done.

In 1996, 35 people were killed in the worst gun massacre in Australian history. But the next decade saw the firearm homicide rate fall by 59 per cent, and the firearm suicide rate fall by 65 per cent, without a corresponding rise in non-firearm deaths.

Australia’s response to the 1996 massacre was comprehensive. Admittedly, policies such as its government gun "buyback" policy could not conceivably be passed in the US. But other Australian policies, including a 28-day waiting period before purchase, and a complete ban on semi-automatic weapons could be imitated. The extent of America’s gun problems are so huge that even comparatively small improvements in their gun laws are worthwhile: a 1 per cent drop in gun fatalities would equate to a fall in deaths of 300.

Whatever happens, gun deaths in the US will remain far too high: it would take a ban on guns, utterly unthinkable, to end that fact. But the profound emotional impact of the massacre in Newtown does present an opportunity to improve America’s gun laws, however unsatisfactorily.

Names of victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting are displayed on a flag in the business area in Newtown, Connecticut. Photograph: Getty Images.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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As children face a mental health crisis, should schools take the lead in fighting it?

There is a crisis affecting the mental health of England's young people. As Children’s Mental Health Week gets underway, the government must put schools at the heart of mental health services.

Three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health condition. Half of these are conduct (behavioural) disorders, while one third are emotional disorders such as stress, anxiety and depression, which often becomes outwardly apparent through self-harm. There was a staggering 52 per cent jump in hospital admissions for children and young people who had self-harmed between 2009 and 2015.

Schools and teachers have consistently reported the scale of the problem since 2009. Last year, over half of teachers reported that more of their pupils experience mental health problems than in the past. But teachers also consistently report how ill-equipped they feel to meet pupils’ mental health needs, and often cite a lack of training, expertise and support from NHS services.

Part of the reason for the increased pressure on schools is that there are now fewer ‘early intervention’ and low-level mental health services based in the community. Cuts to local authority budgets since 2010 have resulted in significant erosion of these services, despite strong evidence of their effectiveness in reducing escalation and crises further down the line. According to the parliamentary Health Select Committee, this has led specialist child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) to become inundated with more severe and complex cases that have been allowed to escalate through a lack of early treatment.

This matters.  Allowing the mental health of children and young people to deteriorate to this extent will prevent us from creating a healthy, happy, economically productive society.

So what part should schools play in government’s response?

During the last parliament, the government played down the role of schools in meeting pupils’ mental health and wider emotional needs. Michael Gove, during his tenure as education secretary, made a conscious decision to move away from the Every Child Matters framework, which obliged local authorities to work with schools and health services to improve the ‘physical and mental wellbeing’ of all children in their local area. He argued that schools policy needed to focus more heavily on academic outcomes and educational rigour, and references to children’s wellbeing were removed from the Ofsted framework. This created a false dichotomy between academic standards and pupils’ mental health - why can’t a school promote both?

But since Gove was replaced by Nicky Morgan, a new window of opportunity for meaningful reform has opened. Following her appointment in 2014, Morgan has called on schools to promote resilience and protect pupil’s mental health when problems first arise. The Department for Education has made tentative steps in this direction, publishing advice on counselling in schools and announcing a new pilot scheme to link schools with NHS services.

However, much more needs to be done.

The only way to break the pressures on both mental health services and schools is to reinvest in early intervention services of the kind that local authorities and the NHS have been forced to cut over the last few years. But this time around there should be one major difference – there is a compelling case that services should be based largely inside schools.

There are strong arguments for why schools are best placed to provide mental health services. Schools see young people more than any other service, giving them a unique ability to get to hard-to-reach children and young people and build meaningful relationships with them over time. Studies have shown that children and young people largely prefer to see a counsellor in school rather than in an outside environment, and attendance rates for school-based services such as those provided by the charity Place2Be are often better than those for CAMHS. Young people have reported that for low-level conditions such as stress and anxiety, a clinical NHS setting can sometimes be daunting and off-putting.

There are already examples of innovative schools which combine mental health and wellbeing provision with a strong academic curriculum. For example, School 21 in East London dedicates 2.5 hours per week to wellbeing, creating opportunities for pastoral staff to identify problems as early as possible.

There is a huge opportunity for Nicky Morgan – as well as Labour’s shadow mental health minister Luciana Berger – to call for schools to be placed at the heart of a reconstructed early intervention infrastructure.

This will, though, require a huge cultural shift. Politicians, policymakers, commissioners and school leaders must be brave enough to make the leap in to reimagining schools as providers of health as well as education services.

Craig Thorley is a research fellow at IPPR, where he leads work on mental health. Follow him @craigjthorley