Firearm-related violence exacts a terrible cost in our nation in both financial and human terms. Because of this, the Healthy People 2000 initiatives have targeted the problem of intentional, unintentional, and self-inflicted firearm injury. Firearms pose a greater risk of injury and death than other weapons: assaults, robberies, and suicide attempts are more likely to have fatal results if a firearm is involved. Certain groups -- the young, the poor, and the elderly -- are more at risk of suffering firearm-related violence than other groups, and this risk is increasing nationwide. This study of firearm-related mortality in West Virginia and the United States was undertaken to determine if the state is following the same trends evident in the country as a whole.

Firearm Possession. According to data obtained through the 1995 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 48% of all West Virginia adults have a loaded or unloaded firearm in their home, car, van, or truck. Men were more likely than women to have firearms in all age groups. Approximately one in eight (12%) adult residents had a loaded firearm in their homes, with only one in 20 storing such firearms in a locked place. Thirty-nine percent (39%) reported keeping at least one unloaded firearm in their home, with 22% keeping their unloaded firearms locked away. Three percent (3%) of state adults reported keeping a loaded firearm in their car, van, or truck; 6% of men had carried a loaded firearm on their person for protection at some time during the 30 days prior to the interview.

High school students in the state were questioned about firearm possession as part of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted in 1990, 1993, and 1995. The percentage of male students who reported carrying a gun one at least one occasion during the 30 days preceding the interview increased from 6% in 1990 to 23% in 1993, decreasing slightly to 19% in 1995. The percentage of females who had carried a gun was 2% or less in all three years.

Trends in Firearm-Related Mortality, WV and US 1970-1994. West Virginia firearm-related mortality rates from 1970, 1975, 1980, 1985, 1990, and 1994 were compared to corresponding United States rates. Rates were age and sex adjusted to remove any variation caused by the state's older population.

Firearm-Related Deaths in West Virginia (1985-1994) and the United States (1990). Ten years of firearm-related mortality data (1985-94) were aggregated for West Virginia in order to make comparisons with United States data from 1990 on the basis of age, sex, and race, as well as on the county level. There were 2,859 firearm-related deaths in West Virginia from 1985-94: 65% were suicides, 29% were homicides, 5% were unintentional, and 1% were undetermined. Of the 36,814 firearm-related deaths in the United States in 1990, 51% were suicides, 44% were homicides, 4% were unintentional, and 1% were undetermined.

West Virginia's age- and sex-adjusted total firearm-related death rate from 1985-94 was 16.0 deaths per 100,000 population, 8% higher than the comparable 1990 U.S. rate of 14.8.

By county, McDowell County reported the highest overall rate of firearm-related mortality (39.3 deaths per 100,000 population). Wirt County reported the lowest overall rate (4.3).

Firearm-Related Years of Potential Life Lost Before Age 65. Firearm-related deaths were the fourth leading contributor of YPLL in both West Virginia and the United States in 1991 (the latest year for which national data were available), accounting for 9.0% of total YPLL in the nation and 8.7% of total YPLL in the state in that year. In West Virginia, suicides accounted for 54% and homicides accounted for 33% of all firearm-related YPLL; in the United States, suicides accounted for 37% of firearm-related YPLL, while homicides accounted for 57%.

Firearm-Related Criminal Activity in West Virginia. The rates of firearm-related crimes in West Virginia are generally much lower than those reported in the nation as a whole. In 1994, the rate of firearm-related murders in West Virginia was 4.2 per 100,000 population, compared to a U.S. rate of 5.9. The state rate of handgun murders was 3.1, versus 4.9 in the nation. The 1994 national rate of firearm-related felonious assault was much higher than the state rate (103.2 per 100,000 population vs. 23.2), as was the rate of firearm-related robberies (98.9 vs. 14.2).

Summary. Firearm-related deaths are a major contributor to loss of life in both the United States and West Virginia. Deaths due to unintentional firearm injury have decreased since 1970 on both the state and national levels. Conversely, firearm-related suicides have increased steadily, while firearm-related homicide rates have fluctuated over time both nationally and statewide. State mortality rates due to firearm-related suicide were found to be higher than national rates regardless of age, sex, or race. Overall, state rates for firearm-related homicide were found to be lower than national rates; however, state rates were higher among females, whites only, and males aged 45 and older.


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Health Statistics Center
Office of Epidemiology and Health Promotion
West Virginia Bureau for Public Health

Last updated 02/07/06