Community prevention systems can reduce gun violence among youth in rural areas

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Adolescents in rural communities with prevention systems in place were 24% less likely to report carrying a handgun by the 12th grade than those in communities without such systems, according to a study published in JAMA Network Open.  

The research has the potential to help scientists integrate firearm safety into existing community programs.

“We know that firearm carrying is a precursor to gun violence,” said study co-author Elizabeth Weybright, a Washington State University Department of Human Development associate professor and adolescent Extension specialist. “This research shows early prevention approaches that provide community training and support have an impact on firearm carrying.”

Firearm injury is the primary cause of death for U.S. children and adolescents. For the study, WSU, the University of Washington, and Arizona State University partnered to examine how Communities that Care (CTC), an evidence-based early prevention system, can change that sobering statistic. Developed at UW, CTC assists communities in using science-based solutions to foster the healthy development of young people.

One of the first of its kind, the study is part of a larger project that will further examine firearms in rural communities. Weybright helped secure funding for the research and is leading a WSU team in collecting and analyzing new data that explores societal norms around adolescent firearm experiences in rural areas. 

One positive impact of the recent study relates to mental health.

“We know that rates of mental illness are similar between rural and urban areas, but individuals in rural areas are more than twice as likely to die by suicide due to a firearm than in urban areas,” said Weybright. “This research holds clear implications for how we can prevent firearm-involved death by suicide.”

The study surveyed more than 4,000 adolescents across 24 rural communities, 12 of which implemented CTC and tailored it to local priorities. Each year from 6th to 12th grade, researchers asked students about a wide range of behaviors, including whether they’d carried a handgun in the past year.

The reduction in handgun carrying because of the CTC merits deeper research into whether reduced handgun carrying in adolescence leads to a lower risk of firearm-related violence throughout a person’s life, said Ali Rowhani-Rahbar, a UW professor of epidemiology and interim director of the UW’s Firearm Injury & Policy Research Program. That’s especially true in rural areas, where the context around firearms may be different than in urban settings.

Rowhani-Rahbar and his team have produced a string of studies on firearm use among adolescents growing up in rural areas. A previous paper showed that about one-third of young males and 1 in 10 females in rural communities have carried a handgun, and that some rural youth began carrying handguns as early as sixth grade.

“The overall burden of firearm mortality in rural areas is roughly the same as in urban areas, with differences seen in the manner in which it occurs at the population level,” Rowhani-Rahbar said. “Unfortunately, rural communities continue to be under-researched and underserved.” 

The findings on handgun carrying stem from a long-term trial of CTC’s effectiveness. Including more than 4,000 adolescents, that trial has shown that CTC leads to long-term reductions in alcohol and drug use, antisocial behavior, and violence beginning in adolescence, among other benefits. 

Reducing gun-related risk was not an explicit goal of CTC. That it did anyway, UW social work professor Margaret Kuklinski said, points to the power of focusing on upstream risk factors to create wide-ranging change in the lives of young people – change that could last a lifetime. 

“Behaviors in adolescence – both positive behaviors and behaviors we want young people to avoid — tend to share risk and protective factors,” said Kuklinski, who is the UW Endowed Associate Professor of Prevention in Social Work and also director of the Social Development Research Group. “When CTC helps communities implement prevention approaches that, for example, strengthen commitment to school, increase positive activities for young people, reduce family conflict, or strengthen norms against alcohol and drug use, communities can expect to see a variety of positive behavior changes in young people. Now we know that those changes include reduced handgun carrying.” 

Other authors are Sabrina Oesterle from Arizona State University, Emma Gause, Kimberly Dalve, Julia Schleimer with the Department of Epidemiology at UW, as well as John Briney and David Hawkins from the Social Development Research Group at UW’s School of Social Work. This research was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.

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