Researchers study public health effects of firearms on rural teens

For the first time in nearly three decades, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is funding research into gun use. The UW is one of the first beneficiaries, with a $1.5 million, three-year grant to research handgun carrying among rural adolescents.

Firearm injuries are the second-leading cause of death for American teens, after vehicle accidents. While young people carrying handguns and firearm violence are generally thought to be urban issues, a recently completed study of rural communities shows that’s not the case. In communities from seven states across the country—Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Illinois, Utah, Kansas, and Maine—UW researchers found that about one in three young males and one in 10 young females had carried a handgun. Many of them carried a handgun for the first time in the sixth grade.

Scientists and researchers are still developing an understanding of the environmental and cultural influences on firearm use, says Ali Rowhani-Rahbar, associate professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health and co-director of the Firearm Injury & Policy Research Program. While rural communities have high levels of firearm access and mortality, especially due to suicide, their relationship with firearms, particularly handguns, is understudied and underserved, he adds.

If the new study can identify developmental patterns of handgun carrying through adolescence and into adulthood, it may inform ways to reduce firearm-related injury in this population. Understanding that youth as young as 12 report carrying a handgun suggests that firearm injury prevention and safety promotion programs may need to be introduced at such early ages.

The CDC stopped funding firearm research in 1996 because of the Dickey Amendment, which prohibited using federal funding to promote gun control. A 2018 House spending bill clarified that the prohibition did not include public health research. Now the CDC has directed $7.8 million to 16 projects, including the UW’s. The awards herald an era in which firearm violence researchers are resourced to work with stakeholders and communities to reduce the burden of this major population health challenge, says Rowhani-Rahbar. “This is a historic development and consequential milestone for the field of public health in general, and the science of violence and injury prevention in particular.”

The new study will be conducted in collaboration with investigators from UW’s Social Development Research Group, Washington State University, Arizona State University and Seattle Children’s Research Institute.