Rural youth who drink heavily more likely to carry handguns

A young adult using a handgun for target shooting.
A recent study by researchers at WSU and other universities showed that youths who drink heavily are more likely to carry a handgun. (Photo by Joel Moysuh on Unsplash)

In the rural U.S., adolescents ages 12 to 18 who drink heavily have a 43% greater probability of carrying a handgun in the following year, according to a recent study by researchers at Washington State University, the University of Washington, and Arizona State University.

“Our understanding of adolescent firearm use and related behaviors has come largely from adolescents in urban areas,” said Elizabeth Weybright, a WSU Department of Human Development associate professor, adolescent Extension specialist, and paper co-author. “Rural areas are geographically different and have their own unique culture. We wanted to examine whether the association between handgun carrying and other risky behaviors such as alcohol use shows the same positive association among rural adolescents as it does among urban adolescents.”

The study, published in The Journal of Rural Health and funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is part of a larger project that seeks to fully investigate how rural adolescents view and engage with handguns.

Weybright, who contributed to the manuscript’s conceptualization and revision, was part of the group who applied for funding. She also co-authored a separate study on early prevention systems’ impact on handgun violence in rural communities.

Data for the most recent study was taken from a longitudinal sample of 2,002 youths ages 12 to 26 in 12 rural communities throughout seven states, including Washington. Survey responses were collected annually from 2004 to 2019, tracking participants through adolescence into young adulthood. Heavy drinking was defined as consuming five or more alcoholic drinks in a row at least once in the previous two weeks. 

“An inherent strength of this data is that it followed the same individuals for so long. Not all studies do this,” Weybright said. “Longitudinal data shows how one behavior may impact another over time. This level of detail can help us understand which behavior comes first and point us in the right direction for targeting behaviors through prevention or intervention.”

The association between heavy drinking and handgun-carrying was also evident in young adults ages 19 to 26, noted senior study author Ali Rowhani-Rahbar, a professor of epidemiology at the UW School of Public Health and pediatrics at the UW School of Medicine. Individuals in that age group who drink heavily are 38% more likely to carry a handgun.

The study authors said their findings can inform strategies to discourage drinking and thereby decrease the likelihood of handgun-carrying among youth and young adults in rural areas. The findings, coupled with existing evidence-based approaches, might also offer key tactics to lower the homicide and suicide rates among adolescents in rural areas, the study concluded.

“We desperately need prevention approaches and interventions tailored to rural communities,” Weybright said. “This study informs what these interventions can and should be targeting. Knowing there is an association between alcohol and handgun carrying means some prevention programs that target substance use could also impact handgun carrying.”

Understanding youth behaviors associated with carrying a firearm has significant safety implications. In 2020, suicide and homicide were among the leading causes of death among U.S. individuals ages 12 to 26 years. About 91% of homicides and 52% of suicides among this age group involved a firearm, the study noted.

Recent evidence suggests that rural adolescents may start carrying a handgun earlier and with higher frequency and duration than their urban counterparts. Handgun-carrying is associated with bullying, physical violence, and other risk factors for violence, the study noted.

Preventing or delaying handgun-carrying among rural adolescents may be an important strategy for preventing firearm-related harm, the authors noted.

“Adolescent behaviors are often carried into adulthood,” Weybright said. “If we can understand this pattern of behavior, we can support future adolescents by preventing them from engaging in behaviors we know are risky or are associated with risky outcomes. Targeting alcohol use may be an effective strategy for also reducing later handgun carrying.”

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