1 in 3 youth in rural areas say they carry a gun by age 26

"Because firearms in many rural areas are such an integral part of a robust gun culture, understanding how youth engage with firearms in those settings is incredibly important," says Ali Rowhani-Rahbar. (Credit: Getty Images)

Young people in rural areas carry handguns at nearly twice the rate as those in urban settings, often for different reasons, according to a new study.

The research, which reveals six distinct patterns for when and how often rural youth carry guns, could help prevent firearm violence and injury.

The patterns, or “longitudinal trajectories,” suggest that youths in rural areas differ in some ways from their urban counterparts when it comes to handgun carrying and provide information for programs designed to help prevent firearm violence and injury.

“Because firearms in many rural areas are such an integral part of a robust gun culture, understanding how youth engage with firearms in those settings is incredibly important,” says Ali Rowhani-Rahbar, a professor of epidemiology and professor for the study and prevention of violence at the University of Washington.  Rowhani-Rahbar is principal investigator and senior author of the paper in JAMA Network Open.

“Strikingly, until now there has been almost no research into the longitudinal patterns of handgun carrying in rural areas,” Rowhani-Rahbar says.

Urban youths and rural youths do not necessarily have the same cultural context, motivations, and use of firearms, the researchers say.

“A key takeaway of our study is that about one in three youth in rural areas report carrying a handgun by age 26,” says lead author Alice Ellyson, acting assistant professor of pediatrics at the School of Medicine who holds a doctorate in economics.

“So, this is a prevalent behavior among these youth during adolescence and early adulthood. For those who carry, about half say they did so only one time, but another portion is carrying quite frequently, 40 times or more a year.”

The study is based on interviews with roughly 2,000 young people who started answering survey questionnaires in the sixth grade. Participants took repeated surveys over a roughly 15-year period, 2005 to 2019, as part of the Community Youth Development Study.

The researchers say that in these patterns of carrying that emerged over the 10 nearly annual waves of surveys, some people reported first carrying at an early age, as young as 12 years old. Consequently, educating young adolescents about firearms, firearm violence, injury, and conflict resolution may be suitable, especially if it connects to the firearm culture of that community.

“Certainly this behavior is very episodic, but adolescence is the age when other behaviors such as bullying and physical violence emerge,” says Ellyson, who is also a principal investigator at Seattle Children’s Research Institute Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development. “Carrying a handgun concurrently with bullying or physical violence may increase the risk, and those behaviors could escalate into more severe violence. More research is needed to measure the potential consequences and health risks of handgun carrying.”

The study emphasizes that nearly all current interventions focused on handgun carrying are related to crime, which may not work for most youth in rural settings, where handgun carrying may occur with different motivations, circumstances, and consequences.

“Before this study, we knew that there is a certain fraction of youth in rural areas who carry handguns,” says Rowhani-Rahbar, co-director of the Firearm Injury & Policy Research Program at the Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center.

“But with this study, we provided evidence that there are distinctive and different patterns of handgun carrying. The discovery of these patterns in rural areas is the first step toward prevention, because knowing when this behavior starts as well as its frequency and duration may provide important points of intervention for injury prevention.”

The current study involved surveys from 12 communities across seven states: Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.

The researchers of the current study will next focus on improving understanding of the cultural context of handgun carrying among young people in rural areas. What are the reasons they pick up a handgun? What are the settings in which they do? What does “carrying” a handgun mean to them? After that, the researchers hope to examine what happened before a person carries and what happened after. What were the consequences?

“There is a very strong safety culture around the use of firearms in rural areas, and some of these young people are very well exposed to and trained in the safe use and handling of firearms, but some of them are not,” says Rowhani-Rahbar. “This type of research really sheds light on the fact that you have to think about context, you have to think about setting, you need to consider community-based factors that should drive and inform the prevention efforts that you design.”

Additional coauthors are from the University of Michigan, Arizona State University, Washington State University, and the University of Washington.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funded the work.

Source: University of Washington