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

A red barn with an American flag, surrounded by open fields.
WSU is collecting and analyzing new data that explores societal norms around adolescent firearm experiences in rural areas. (Photo by specphotops on Unsplash)

SEATTLE — Firearm injury is the primary cause of death for U.S. children and adolescents. Washington State University, the University of Washington, and Arizona State University have partnered to examine how early prevention systems in communities can change that sobering statistic.

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

The study, published in JAMA Network Open, demonstrated that 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. The data can help researchers working with communities to integrate firearm safety into existing programs.

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 a coordinated set of preventive interventions tailored 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. 

Adolescents in communities that implemented CTC were also 27% less likely to report carrying a handgun in a given grade than those in control communities. 

Those findings merit deeper research into whether reduced handgun carrying in adolescence leads to a reduced risk of firearm-related violence throughout a person’s life, said Ali Rowhani-Rahbar, 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.” 

Data for this analysis came from an ongoing evaluation of CTC’s effectiveness over the past two decades. 

Developed at the UW, CTC is an evidence-based prevention system that assists communities in using science-based solutions to foster the healthy development of young people. The UW’s Center for Communities That Care is currently helping to implement the system in 150 communities nationwide, in addition to 14 countries.

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 (Arizona State University), Emma Gause, Kimberly Dalve, Julia Schleimer (Department of Epidemiology, University of Washington), John Briney and David Hawkins (Social Development Research Group, School of Social Work, University of Washington). This research was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.

For more information on this study, contact Ali Rowhani-Rahbar at