Importance: Characterizing patterns of handgun carrying among adolescents and young adults can inform programs to reduce firearm-related harm. Longitudinal patterns of handgun carrying among rural adolescents have not been identified. Objectives: To assess specific points of intervention by characterizing patterns of handgun carrying by youths in rural communities from early adolescence to young adulthood and to quantify how age at initiation, duration, and frequency of carrying differ across identified patterns. Design, Setting, and Participants: This cohort study uses the control group of the community-randomized trial of the Communities That Care prevention system, conducted among public school students in 12 rural communities across 7 states. Participants self-reported their handgun carrying at 10 data collection points from 12 to 26 years of age (2005-2019). Data were analyzed from January to July 2021. Main Outcomes and Measures: Handgun carrying in the past 12 months. Latent class growth analysis was used to estimate handgun carrying trajectories. Results: In this longitudinal rural sample of 2002 students, 1040 (51.9%) were male; 532 (26.6%) were Hispanic, Latino, Latina, or Latinx; 1310 (65.4%) were White; and the highest level of educational attainment of either parent was a high school degree or less for 649 students (32.4%). The prevalence of handgun carrying in the last 12 months ranged from 5.3% (95 of 1795) to 7.4% (146 of 1969) in adolescence and increased during the mid-20s (range, 8.9% [154 of 1722] to 10.9% [185 of 1704] from 23 to 26 years of age). Among the participants who reported handgun carrying at least once between 12 and 26 years of age (n = 601 [30.0%]), 320 (53.2%) reported carrying a handgun in only 1 wave. Latent class growth analysis indicated 6 longitudinal trajectories: never or low probability of carrying (1590 [79.4%]), emerging adulthood carrying (166 [8.3%]), steadily increasing carrying (163 [8.1%]), adolescent carrying (53 [2.6%]), declining carrying (24 [1.2%]), and high probability and persistent carrying (6 [0.3%]). The earliest mean (SD) age at initiation of handgun carrying occurred in both the adolescent and declining carrying groups at the ages of 12.6 (0.9) and 12.5 (0.7) years, respectively. More than 20% of some groups (emerging adulthood [age 26 years: 49 of 154 (31.8%)], steadily increasing [age 26 years: 37 of 131 (28.2%)], declining [age 13 years: 7 of 23 (30.4%)], and high probability and persistent carrying [age 15 years: 3 of 6 (50.0%)]) reported carrying 40 times or more in the past year by the age of 26 years. Conclusions and Relevance: This study found distinct patterns of handgun carrying from adolescence to young adulthood in rural settings. Findings suggest that promoting handgun safety in rural areas should start early. Potential high-risk trajectories, including carrying at high frequencies, should be the focus of future work to explore the antecedents and consequences of handgun carrying in rural areas..
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