Underage gun use in rural areas goes beyond hunting. Many tweens and teens report carrying handguns.

By Kristi Pahr
February 05, 2020
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It should come as no surprise that gun culture in rural areas is dramatically different from gun culture in metropolitan areas. In rural areas, more people are likely to hunt and introduce their children to hunting at a young age. Almost half of U.S. states have no minimum age for supervised hunting and many allow unsupervised hunting as young as 12 years old.

What many people may not realize, however, is that not only are kids in rural areas exposed to long guns, or rifles, at a young age, but many of them report also carrying handguns at very young ages. A recent study found that one-third of rural boys reported carrying a handgun at least once between sixth grade and age 19, and 34 percent of the boys who reported carrying said they did so for the first time in sixth grade.

Sixth grade.

The subjects polled were from 12 different towns spread across seven states. Discussions of youth firearm use have historically focused on urban areas, but this study suggests that kids and teens in rural areas may have more access and exposure to handguns than those in cities.

"Youth handgun carrying and firearm violence are often presented as an exclusively inner-city problem," said Ali Rowhani-Rahbar, M.D., Ph.D., who is the Bartley Dobb professor for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Washington, in a press release. "However, that focus should not come at the cost of ignoring non-urban settings. Indeed, youth in some rural areas experience similar or even higher rates of handgun carrying and certain forms of interpersonal violence—for example, being attacked or threatened with a weapon—than their counterparts in urban areas."

young boy holding handgun
Credit: Adobe Stock

What Parents Can Do to Keep Kids Safe

It's of vital importance that parents who own firearms store them correctly in a manner that prevents their children or their children's friends from accessing them. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 833 children under the age of 15 were killed by handguns in 2017, at least 70 of which were accidental shootings. Another study, published in the Pediatrics journal, found that 19 children are treated for gunshot wounds in emergency rooms every single day.

"Since handguns are also especially tempting to play with, wave around, and conceal, parents should take extra care to ensure that they are locked and unloaded at all times when not in use," says David Hill, M.D., a North Carolina pediatrician and gun owner. "Parents who insist on keeping a handgun in the home for self-defense now have more options than ever for quick-access biometric locks and safes that can help keep children safe."

A 2015 survey found that over 4.5 million children live in homes with at least one firearm that is loaded and unlocked. And a 2019 study published in JAMA Pediatrics estimated that between 6 and 32 percent of child/teen suicides and unintentional shootings could be prevented by properly locked and stored firearms in homes—specifically storing guns inside locked gun safes, lockboxes, or vaults.

Traditional combination lock gun safes are just the beginning. Biometric trigger locks that will only open with the placement of the correct fingerprint on the sensor are widely available and may prove more difficult for curious children and teens to bypass.

According to the American Academy of Pediatricians, the best defense against misuse of a firearm by a child is to not have firearms in the home. However, gun-owning parents should take the time to ensure that their children are fully aware of the damage a firearm can do and should consider enrolling their children in firearm safety classes. Removing the mystery and mystique of a weapon and ensuring the children respect it for what it is can go a long way in preventing disaster.