Journal of Rural Community Psychology               Volume E7   Number 1   Spring 2004


Firearms, Violence, and Attitudes Among Rural Youth


Karen Slovak &  Karen Carlson





Youth in 4 rural schools (N=477) were surveyed about their gun ownership, hunting, gun access, and gun violence exposure.  In addition, the influence of gun ownership and violence exposure on rural youths’ attitudes was explored through the use of the Attitudes Towards Guns and Violence Questionnaire (AGVQ, Shapiro, 2000).  Levels of reported firearm behaviors were quite high.  Reported violence exposure was also reported at elevated levels although comparable to other studies of rural youth.  Implications of these findings accentuate the necessity to further investigate and mitigate the lethal consequences of this hardware in rural areas.  Also, findings on attitudes towards guns and violence among rural youth provide useful information for prevention and intervention programs in these communities.    




Violence among youth has developed into a significant public health issue and remains on the forefront of prevention, intervention, and treatment efforts in our nation.  Not only is the concern based on the physical and mental health effects of violence exposure, but also the economic costs to society associated with illness, disability, and premature death from violence, estimated to be billions of dollars every year (Miller, Cohen, & Rossman, 1993).   Between the mid 1980s and the early 1990s, the number and rate of youth dying from firearm injuries increased to reach levels that astonished American society.  Although the numbers have been declining, firearm related deaths and injuries remain an alarming factor in the death of youth; more than 20,000 children under 20 years of age were killed or injured by a firearm in 1998 along with the untold number of witnesses to these events (Fingerhut & Christoffel, 2002). 


Despite slowing rates of youth violence over the past few years, the level is still cause for concern, especially with the gun violence that has extended beyond cities to multiple victim shootings in suburban and rural areas (Wilkinson & Fagan, 2001).  Guns have become an important element in trying to decipher and successfully impact issues of youth violence.  The profound lethality of firearms coupled with easy access has intensified this already complex issue.  In addition, because of these circumstances, public debate has shifted focus from gun policies in general to include gun violence as a public health issue among youth (Reich, Culross, & Behrman, 2002; Tran, 2001).


While most of what is known about adolescents and firearms extends from research surrounding inner city violence, the focus of youth violence has spread to highlight youth in communities once thought to be protected from the violence that plagued youth in urban communities (Kingery, Mizraee, Pruit, & Hurley, 1991; Rausch, Sanddal, Remt, Sanddal, & Esposito, 1998; Sadowski & Munoz, 1996; Slovak, 2002; Slovak & Singer, 2001).  Furthermore, the recent rash of multiple-victim shootings beyond cities in suburban and rural areas such Littleton, Colorado, and Jonesboro, Arkansas, raise several questions and comparisons surrounding youth gun violence and community setting (Wilkinson & Fagan, 2001).


Whether in urban neighborhoods or rural communities, guns have played a large role in the character of youth violence for some time (Zimring, 1999).  Historically, urban youth are at higher risk to experience gun violence exposure since violence has been more pervasive in urban areas, compared to suburban and rural communities (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000; U.S. Department of Justice, Uniform Crime Reports, 2000).  However, this finding may not hold up across time with our rapidly changing culture, urbanization of small communities, and both the influx and influence of violent media on youth (Sherrow in Funk, Elliott, Urman, Flores, & Mock, 1999; Lockridge, 1998).


Indeed, a number of studies have noted that rural firearm violence among youths is at the level of and often times higher of than that of their cohorts in urban areas (Esposito, Sanddal, Hansen, & Reynolds, 1995; Sadowski & Munoz, 1996).   One study indicated that firearm injuries ranked second as a cause of death in rural children independent of intentionality (Rausch et al., 1998).  In addition, it has been documented that firearm-related suicide, which was the second leading cause of death among youth in 1998 (Murphy, S., 1998), is more likely to occur among white adolescent males in rural communities compared to urban and suburban youth (Fingerhut & Christoffel, 2002). 


Along with increasing firearm violence in rural areas, it has been noted that rural youth also have increased access to guns.  Weisheit and Wells (1996) speculate that rural gun ownership is perhaps three times as frequent compared to urban areas and guns remain a poplar holiday wish-list item for young boys in rural towns (Leung, 2001).  The importance of firearms in rural communities is highlighted by the fact that schools have been closed or their schedules altered during hunting season (Marcus, 1998; Sandham, 1997). 


High firearm ownership among rural areas is cause for concern since research has suggested that children who live in areas with high levels of gun ownership are at greater risk for unintentional death, homicide and suicide, compared to those who live in areas with less gun availability (Miller, Azrael, & Hemenway, 2002).  Others studies have also established that access to firearms is related to injury by this means.  Research has indicated that the presence of a gun in the home increases the risk of firearm injury to children and a strong correlation exists between household guns and both suicide (.94) and homicide (.75) (American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Adolescents, 1992; Killias, 1993; Wintermute, 1988; Webster, Wilson, Duggan, & Pakula, 1992).


In an attempt to better understand and address prevention issues surrounding youth gun violence, current research has begun to address the influence of attitudes towards violence on subsequent violent behavior.  Funk et al. (1999) and Shapiro (2000) both have developed instruments to measure attitudes towards violence and guns in attempt to reliably measure attitudes as a target for prevention and intervention.  In developing these instruments, these researchers succinctly make the case that attitudes towards violence, victimization, violent behavior, and gun ownership are variables related to subsequent violent behavior.  In deciphering attitudes towards guns and violence, Shapiro makes the case that rifles and handguns appear to be associated with different attitudes and behaviors.  This is based on the finding that rifle ownership is generally associated with hunting and only slightly elevated delinquency while handgun ownership is associated with high levels of delinquent activity. 


While the AGVQ (Shapiro, 2000) was established with the distinction to explicitly not confound a harmless interest in hunting with interest in use of firearms against others, the current authors believe that the AGVQ is still of value among rural youth.  With the increasing youth violence, culture of hunting and easy access to guns, deciphering the violence-related attitudes of youth in rural areas is warranted.  In order to develop appropriate prevention and intervention strategies in these types of communities, rural youth should not be overlooked or stereotyped with regard to violence-related attitudes and behaviors. 

The purpose of the present study is two-fold.  The first aim of the present study is to document elements surrounding gun ownership, hunting, gun access, and gun violence exposure among rural youth.  This type of documentation will add to the growing body of knowledge surrounding rural youth and firearms.  The second aim of this study is to document the attitudes that rural youth hold towards guns and violence.  Specifically, the influence of gun ownership and violence exposure on rural youths’ attitudes will be explored.  The results of this investigation will help document and elucidate the seemingly differential nature of youth violence in rural areas, which can serve as a foundation to better inform prevention and intervention efforts in rural communities. 




Subject Recruitment


Respondents in this survey were recruited through guidance counselors, principals, teachers, and other staff at schools located in two rural counties in Southeast Ohio.  Participating schools included 2 middle schools, 1 high school and a non-traditional vocational technical high school.  There were 477 usable surveys collected from participants in grades 6 through 12 during the 2000-2001 school year.  Total population in these schools during the 2000-2001 school year was approximately 1400 students.  Thus our response rate, averaged across all four schools, equaled slightly over 34%.   In one instance, due to logistics of the school schedule and timing of the survey, not all grades within the school were offered the opportunity to participate in the study.  Therefore, we assume we might have had a slightly higher response rate if all students had been given the opportunity to complete the survey.


All four schools were classified as rural on the basis of the Ohio Department of Education’s 1996 school typology system, which defines rural districts as “very low density, high or moderate percentage agricultural property” (Ohio Department of Education, 2003).  This typology of districts was developed in order to provide a rational basis for making data driven comparisons of “like” districts. 


Parental permission for students to participate was secured through a consent form indicating the nature of the research.  Students who were over 18 years of age were considered adults by the school and were able to sign their own consent form, with most of these subjects attending the non-traditional vocational high school.  Both students and parents were instructed on the nature of the survey, were informed that participation was voluntary, and that the survey reports would be anonymous.  In addition, at the time the survey was conducted, students were instructed that they could discontinue the survey at any time.  Instructions were written on the cover sheet of the survey, but were also given verbally to subjects prior to their beginning the survey.  The Institutional Review Board at Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, reviewed the protocol and permission forms prior to approving the study.






The demographic information included age, gender, race and ethnicity, number of people in the home, and parent composition in the home.


Hunting and Gun Ownership


Gun ownership and hunting behaviors were collected through a series of five questions designed to tap into the following areas:  type of gun ownership, storage patterns, hunting behavior, age initiated hunting, and gun/rifle education or training.


Gun Violence Exposure


Violence exposure questions were captured through the Life Experiences Survey (LES)©, which examines recent (26 items) and past (12 items) violence exposure.  The LES was originally developed by Singer, Anglin, Song, and Lunghofer (1995), for a study which examined six types of recent and past violence exposure:  (1) threats, (2) slapping/hitting/punching, (3) beatings, (4) knife attacks, (5) gun violence, and (6) sexual abuse.  Violence exposure was measured by asking children to report violence they had experienced personally or had witnessed.  Students were asked not to include things they may have seen or heard about or from other people or from TV, radio, the news, or the movies.  This study only utilized the 26 items that captured recent violence exposure.


For the present study, gun violence exposure was measured through a series of four questions in the LES.  These questions were a subset of items used in the recent violence exposure scale. Students were asked:

How often over the past year has someone pointed a real gun at you?

How often over the past year have you seen someone pointing a real gun at someone else?

How often over the past year have you yourself actually been shot at or shot with a real gun?

How often over the past year have you seen someone else being shot at or shot with a real gun?

The LES used a four-point Likert scale to capture responses.  Response categories were never = 0, sometimes = 1, very often = 2, and almost every day = 3.  Gun violence scale scores from these four questions ranged from 0 to 12, with higher scores indicating greater gun violence exposure.  The four gun violence exposure questions received a Cronbach’s alpha of .82.


For analysis purposes, the gun violence exposure questions were used in two ways.  First, for descriptive purposes the response categories for each question were collapsed into two categories.  One category represented those reporting “never” on the question and the other category collapsed the remaining responses to reflect if the event happened to them “at least sometimes” or more.


Second, the gun violence exposure questions were used as a gun violence scale score.  The scale score, which ranged from 0 to 12, was used in regression analyses.


Access to Firearms


For the purpose of this study, two questions were added to the original LES scale to examine access to a real gun.  Students were questioned about their own access and knowledge of other student’s access to real guns. Gun access scale scores from these two questions ranged from 0 to 6, with higher scored indicating greater access. The gun access questions received a Cronbach’s alpha of .48. For analysis purposes, the gun access questions were collapsed into two categories:  one category represented those reporting “never” on the question and the other category collapsed the remaining responses to reflect if the event happened to them “at least sometimes” or more.


Attitudes Towards Guns and Violence


Youth reports of violence-related attitudes were measured through the Attitudes Toward Guns and Violence Questionnaire (AGVG)©. The AGVQ, developed by Shapiro (2000), is a 26-item self-report questionnaire designed to measure attitudes concerning guns, physical aggression, and interpersonal conflict in youth.  According to the manual, each question is a statement related to some aspect of violence, guns, or conflict behavior, measured on a 3-point Likert-type scale with the response options of Agree, Not Sure, and Disagree.  Items that involve antiviolence are reverse scored so high scores indicate violence proneness.  The AGVQ has the ability to obtain six scores:

Total Score—a global measure of attitudes favorable or unfavorable to violence and guns;

Inconsistent Responding Score—a validity indicator;

Aggressive Response to Shame Subscale;

Comfort with Aggression subscale;

Excitement Subscale; and

Power/Safety Subscale

The internal consistency of the scale is estimated at .82, with subscales ranging from .73 to .87 (Shapiro, 2000).  For the purpose of the present study, only the Total AGVQ score and Inconsistent Responding Score were utilized.  The Total AGVQ Score in the present study, with Inconsistent scores removed, received a Cronbach’s alpha of .85.






The average age of students in the sample was 15.3, with a range from 11 to 19.  There were 260 (54.5%) were female, and 216 (45.3%) males, with students being predominately white (95%).  The next largest racial category reported by students was black.


Most students in the sample lived with their mother and father (62.9%); the next largest category lived with their mother only (23.7%).  The average number of people the students reported in their home (including self) was 4.14. 


Guns, Hunting, and Storage


Approximately one-half of the students reported owning some type of firearm.  Overall, the largest percentage of students (11.8%) reported owning a handgun, rifle, and shotgun, followed very closely by shotgun only (11.6%).  Not surprisingly, males reported higher levels of gun ownership in all categories except for rifles, where females reported owning slightly more.  Handgun, rifle, and shotgun were the largest category of gun ownership for males at 33.3% and females reported shotguns (7.8%) as the largest category of gun ownership.  These results are shown in Table 1.


Table 1

Percent Reporting Type of Firearm Owned


Type of Firearm
















Handgun and Rifle




Handgun and Shotgun




Rifle and Shotgun




Handgun, Rifle, and Shotgun




Do Not Own a Gun





The results of reported firearm storage patterns are found in Table 2.  Over three in four students reported having a firearm in their household, with males reporting at a higher percentage than females.  Most students reported that firearms in their house were stored locked and unloaded (47.2%).  This finding held true across genders.  The next largest category of was unlocked and unloaded, with almost one in four students reporting this type of storage pattern.  Only a small percentage (2.5%) of students reported guns being unlocked and loaded.


Table 2

Percent Reporting Type of Firearm Storage


Type of Storage




No Guns in the House





















Over one-half of the students reported that they hunt, with three in four boys and one in four girls reporting in this manner.  Of those students who reported that they hunt, the average age students reported initiating hunting was 9.6 years, with males reporting starting at a younger average age (9.3 years) than girls (10.4 years).  Table 3 reports these results.


Table 3

Percentage of Students Reporting Hunting


Do You Hunt?













The majority of students reported receiving some type of education or training on how to use a firearm.  Differences occurred by gender, with males receiving more training. Their primary place of training was from hunting/gun education programs.  Stemming from the fact that females were less likely to own guns and hunt, they were less likely to receive firearm training compared to males; parents primarily educated those females that did receive any firearm education.  Results of this data are shown in Table 4.


Table 4

Percent Students Reporting Type of Firearm Training


Type of Training




From Parents




From Hunting/Gun Education Program







From Both Parents and Hunting/Gun Education Program















Violence Exposure and Access to Firearms


Students’ reports of exposure to gun violence and access to guns are reported in Table 5 and Table 6.  Reponses were collapsed into percentages that represent the responses of “at least sometimes” or more.  Almost 1 in 10 students reported being exposed to a gun pointing, with one in eight also witnessing this event.  These numbers reflect collapsed percentages of students responding “at least sometimes” or more.  Males reported higher victimization and witnessing of this event compared to females; approximately 1 in 14 reported experiencing a shooting within the past year as a victim, and 1 in 12 reported witnessing this event.  Similar to the event of having a gun pointed at them or witnessing this event, being the victim or witness of a shooting was higher for males.


Students’ reports of access to firearms were substantial, with 61.7 percent reporting that they had access to a gun within the past year. In addition, 54.9 percent reported knowledge of another student’s access to a real gun within the past year.  Continuing the gender trend, males reported higher levels of these events compared to females.


Table 5

Rural Students’ Reports of Gun Violence Exposure within the Past Year:

Collapsed Percentages of “at Sometimes or More”



Gun pointed

Shot at or shot






















Table 6

Rural Students’ Reports of Gun Access within the Past Year:

Collapsed Percentages of “at Sometimes or More"



Gun Access













Association between Attitudes Towards Guns And Violence (AGVQ),

Firearm Ownership, Hunting, and Gun Violence Exposure


The association between attitudes towards guns and violence as measured through the AGVQ total score and firearm ownership, hunting, and gun violence exposure was examined through a hierarchical multiple regression.  The total score for the AGVQ was utilized as the dependent variable in the regression analysis.  The first regression model included the independent demographic variables of age and family type (two parent versus all other types).  The second model of the regression added another block of independent variables to the regression.  These variables included gun ownership (non versus all other types), hunting behavior, and gun violence exposure.  Since gun ownership, hunting, and gun violence exposure was skewed toward males, two separate regressions were run for each gender. 


For males, after controlling for demographic variables, the firearm variables explained 5.7% (p<.05) of the variance the Total AGVQ score (See Table 7). Together, demographics and the firearm variables explained 7.1% (p<.05) of the variance in the total AGVQ score.  There were no significant variables in the second model.


For females, after controlling for demographic variables, the firearm variables explained 14.5% (p<.05) of the variance the Total AGVQ score (Table 8). Together, demographics and gun violence exposure explained 15.7% (p<.05) of the variance in the total AGVQ score.  Significant variables (p<.05) in the second model included gun violence exposure and owning a gun.



Summary of Hierarchical Multiple Regression Analysis for Males:

Relationship between Firearm Variables on AGVQ Total Score






Step 1








Family Type








Step 2








Family Type








Gun Ownership




Gun violence exposure




        Note:  Adjusted R2=.014 for Step 1; DR2=.057 for Step 2 (p<.05)      * p<.05


Table 8

Summary of Hierarchical Multiple Regression Analysis for Females:

Relationship between Firearm Variables on AGVQ Total Score






Step 1






. 18


Family Type








Step 2








Family Type








Gun Ownership




Gun violence exposure




    Note:  Adjusted R2=.012 for Step 1; DR2=.145 for Step 2 (p<.05)      * p<.05




This was a convenience sample and may not be representative of rural students, their firearm behaviors and patterns, or their attitudes towards firearms and violence.  Therefore, this study is limited in its generalizability.  It is difficult to determine whether these results are typical of this type of rural students, suggesting the need for more research among rural youth on the topic of firearms and attitudes towards violence.


This study also is limited in that the firearm questions are not normed, making for difficulty in interpretation and comparison across groups and studies.  Lastly, this study is based on self-reported data, which may not provide a valid indicator of attitude or predict behavior; however, the self-reporting approach is considered acceptable if there is no significant reason to conceal their true feelings (Eiser & van der Plight, 1988; Henderson, Morris, & Fitz-Gibbon, 1987).




Results of this study are consistent with other research findings surrounding rural firearm access and gun violence exposure.  Although slightly lower than reported in earlier studies (Singer & Slovak, 2002; Slovak, 2002), exposure to gun violence reported by rural youth in the present study is still at unacceptably high levels.  In addition, access to guns in the present study was reported at slightly higher levels compared to Slovak’s (2000) earlier study.  Almost two-thirds of the youth in the present study indicated they had access to a firearm and over one-half said they knew of someone else having access, which is higher than a national study of male high school sophomores and juniors (Sheley, & Wright, 1998).  The present study not only highlights the alarming trend of rural youth’s easy access to firearms, but also challenges the stereotype that gun access and gun violence exposure are problems faced primarily by urban youth. 


In addition to easy access to guns, approximately one-half of these youth reported owning firearms.  Owning a firearm was especially prevalent for males, with 80% reporting they owned one or multiple firearms.  Fifty-eight percent of the males in this study reported owning more than one firearm, with 33.5% reporting owning three types (handgun, rifle, and shotgun).  Considering that 48% of most gun-owning households had three or more firearms in 1994 (Cook & Ludwig, 1996), this statistic is not surprising.


What becomes cause for concern, highlighted by present study, is young age at which males reporting multiple firearm ownership.  This concern is delineated by following research findings:  1) many studies have demonstrated a distinct association between suicide and keeping a firearm in the home, particularly for adolescents and young adults (Birckmayer & Hemenway, 2001; Brent, Perper, Allman, Moritz, Wartella, & Zelenak, 1991;  Brent, Baugher, Birmaher, Kolko, & Bridge, 2000); 2) white adolescents, males, and youth residing in rural areas are more likely to die from suicides by firearms than any other youth (Fingerhut & Christoffel, 2002) ; and 3) in states where firearm ownership is common, children are more likely to die for gunshot wounds (Miller et al., 2002).  These findings coupled with the prevalence of firearm ownership among youth in this study accentuate the necessity to further investigate and mitigate the lethal consequences of this hardware in rural areas. 


As well as firearm ownership engaging attention for concern among rural youth, gun violence exposure further adds to this apprehension.  Gun violence exposure and gun ownership for females was significantly associated with an increased AGVQ total score.  The gun violence exposure relationship to total AGVQ score is consistent with Shapiro et al.’s (1998) research that demonstrated all types of firearm exposure to be associated with increased levels of attraction to guns and violence.  Gun violence exposure and increased AGVQ score was not found in the present study for males, perhaps supporting what Shapiro asserts as the different reasons for owing rifles to hunt in rural areas.  Shapiro et al.’s (1998) study also demonstrated a relationship between firearm ownership and increased AGVQ score, with handgun ownership displaying an increased effect size compared to rifles.  The explanation provided for this conveyed that young people who have firearms involved in daily life expressed more violence-prone attitudes compared to those unfamiliar to guns.  In the present study, this finding held true only for females.  A significant association for male firearm ownership and AGVQ score was not displayed perhaps reflecting the commonality and desensitization of ownership among these males and non-violent experiences with guns.  Three out of four males in the present study reported hunting, with an average age of initiation at 9.3 years.  Again, this supports the notion the rural culture of hunting and innocuous gun ownership.  However, what confounds the relationship demonstrated between males, gun ownership, an AGVQ score in this study is that many males reported owing handguns as well as rifles.


AGVQ scores are correlated with “interpersonal behavior problems, aggressive behavior, aggression-related emotions, and knowledge of conflict related psychosocial skills (Shapiro, 2000).  Therefore, utilizing this measurement in targeting youth exposed to gun violence for attitude changing intervention may be useful in overall violence prevention and treatment programs for social workers and all other professionals working with youth and their families.  However, its application with rural youth may be limited to females; unhealthy attitudes towards guns and violence among rural males may need to be uncovered in an instrument better suited to their experiences and culture.


With the majority of students in this study receiving some type or gun education and training, these programs serve as a natural outlet for targeting high-risk youth.  Methods to identify youth with unhealthy attitudes towards violence in rural areas need to be further developed.  Rural youth should not be overlooked when developing these intervention and programs since this and other studies document they are not only victims to gun violence, but also the types of firearms they are exposed to and their firearm behaviors may differ substantially from their urban cohorts. 


Deaths and injury caused by rifles and shotguns deserve special attention in rural areas in order to effectively plan prevention, education, and intervention programs and policies.  A significant number of youth reside in rural areas and attend public schools, with almost one third of children residing in rural communities and small towns during the 1998-99 school year (Hoffman, 2000. 


These youth should not be overlooked and the stereotype that rural youth are less at risk for the harmful effects of firearms inhibits appropriate attention to their needs and impedes development of appropriate mental health services.  Future studies that discriminate the unique characteristics of firearms in rural areas will assist in further identifying the social and mental health needs of rural youth.




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1-Karen Slovak, Ohio Univiersity, Zanesville, OH 43701 , (330) 742-1598

PhD, Case Western Reserve University, OH

On going research interests include rural youth, violence exposure, gun violence


2-Karen Carlson, Ohio University, Department of Social Work, 584 Morton Hall, Athens, OH 45701 , (740) 593-1297

PhD, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI

On going research interests include adolescent development, self concept, suicidality, violence exposure