Data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System and the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System were used to estimate prevalences of firearm possession among the adult and youth populations in the state. As noted, hunting has been and continues to be an important part of West Virginia's culture, both as recreation and a means of providing food for the table, and many boys in the state begin hunting at a young age, especially in the more rural counties. Neither of the surveys associated with the surveillance systems discussed below distinguish between hunting firearms and other firearms; it would not be unexpected, therefore, to find higher-than-average prevalences of firearm possession among both adults and youth in West Virginia.

Behavioral Risk Factor Survey. The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), a random telephone survey, was designed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to measure health behaviors among adults over time, enabling states to monitor progress toward the reduction of these risk factors by providing ongoing surveillance (9). The BRFSS represents a collaborative effort between individual state public health agencies and the CDC. The states provide telephones, office space, interviewers, and data supervision (either in-house or through contracted services). The CDC provides financial assistance, a standardized set of core questions, computer-assisted telephone interviewing software, computers, data processing services, and analytic consultation. In addition to the core questions, states may choose among several optional modules containing questions that address specific health problems. A module comprising 11 questions on firearm ownership and safety was offered in 1995 (see Appendix A). The following discussion centers on data collected in that year from 2,434 West Virginia households.

Nearly one-half (47.9%) of all BRFSS respondents surveyed in 1995 reported having a loaded or unloaded firearm in either their home, car, van, or truck (Table 2). Men were more likely than women to possess a firearm (57.7% vs. 39.1%), a finding that crossed all age groups (Figure 1). Lower percentages of both sexes possessed firearms in the youngest (18-24) and oldest (65+) age groups interviewed. The percentage of men who reported having a firearm decreased with increased educational level, a pattern not found among women (Figure 2). By marital status, higher percentages of married men and women reported having a firearm (Figure 3). However, while somewhat lower percentages of divorced, widowed, and never married men possessed firearms, substantially lower percentages of gun ownership were found among women in the same categories.

Three percent (3.1%) of all respondents reported carrying a loaded firearm in their car, van, or truck, 5.1% of the men and 1.4% of the women interviewed (Table 2). Approximately one in eight (12.3%) West Virginia adults reported having a loaded firearm in their home, 16.7% of men and 8.4% of women. However, only one in twenty (4.9%) respondents stored their loaded firearms in a locked place that had to be opened with a key or combination or with a trigger lock that could only be opened with a key or combination. Thirty-nine percent (38.6%) of West Virginia's adult population kept at least one unloaded firearm in their homes, 46.0% and 31.9% of male and female respondents, respectively. Only 21.9% stored their unloaded firearms in a locked place or with a trigger lock. Ammunition was kept in the same room as the firearms by 6.9% of the respondents, with less than one percent (0.9%) locking their ammunition away. Six percent (6.0%) of male respondents had carried a loaded firearm on their person for protection during the 30 days prior to the interview, compared to only 0.8% of female respondents.

Overall, 27.4% of respondents reported that they felt safer because they had firearms in their home, car, van, or truck. Higher percentages of men than women reported feeling safer in all age groups (Figure 4). Married and divorced men reported feeling safer more frequently than widowed or never married men; a higher percentage of married women reported feeling safer because they possessed a firearm than either divorced, widowed, or never married women (Figure 5).

Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) was developed by the CDC to monitor high risk behaviors among the nation's youth and young adults (10). The YRBSS includes national, state, and local school-based surveys of high school students in grades nine through 12. The results from surveys conducted in 1993, the latest year for which national data were available at the time of publication, are presented in this paper. The 1993 YRBSS included 155 high schools deemed representative of the U.S. population as a whole. Data concerning weapon and gun possession among students were available from 21 states, including West Virginia.

In the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), the students are asked (1) During the past 30 days, on how many days did you carry a weapon such as a gun, knife, or club? and (2) During the past 30 days, on how many days did you carry a gun? The 1993 YRBS results are presented in Table 3. The percentage of students who reported carrying a weapon ranged from 31.8% in Tennessee to 18.4% in Hawai'i, with a U.S. median of 22.1%. In West Virginia, 28.7% of students reported carrying a weapon of some type during the previous 30 days. Males were consistently more likely to report carrying a weapon than females. West Virginia (48.2%) ranked second to Tennessee (52.6%) in the percentage of male students who reported carrying a weapon; the U.S. median among males was 34.3%.

The overall percentage of students who reported carrying a gun during the past 30 days ranged from 13.5% in Louisiana to 6.1% in Hawai'i; 12.5% of students in West Virginia had carried a gun. The U.S. median was 7.9%. Among male students only, the percentages ranged from 23.5% in Louisiana to 10.2% in Hawai'i and New Hampshire, with a U.S. median of 13.7%. Again, West Virginia ranked second, with 22.9% of males reported having carried a gun during the past 30 days (Figure 6).

State data from the YRBS are available from 1990, 1993, and 1995. In the latest year of surveillance, the West Virginia Youth Risk Behavior Survey (WVYRBS) was administered to 2,079 randomly selected 9th through 12th grade students in 39 public schools in the state. In addition to three years of data on the two questions discussed above, state-level information concerning carrying a weapon on school property, feeling unsafe at school, and being threatened or injured with a weapon was available for 1993 and 1995 (see Appendix B). Table 4 presents WVYRBS data for all five questions for the three survey years.

The percentage of male students who reported carrying a weapon (such as a gun, knife, or club) during the past 30 days increased substantially between 1990 (36.1%) and 1993 (48.2%), decreasing slightly in 1995 (43.9%). The percentage among female students, however, decreased steadily, from 10.8% in 1990 to 9.1% in 1993 and 6.6% in 1995. While there was a marked increase among males in gun possession between 1990 and 1993 (6.3% to 22.9%), the percentage decreased in 1995 (18.8%). The percentage of gun carrying among females remained low in all three survey years (Figure 7).

Nearly one in four (24.0%) male students reported possessing a weapon on school property during the past 30 days in 1993, down to approximately one in five (20.5%) in 1995. The percentage of female students carrying a weapon to school decreased from 4.2% in 1993 to 3.5% in 1995. About one in 10 males had been threatened or injured during the previous 12 months in both 1993 (10.5%) and 1995 (10.0%), compared to 4.6% and 4.5% of female students, respectively. In both 1993 and 1995, approximately 4% of both male and female students had missed at least one day of school during the previous 30 days because they felt unsafe.



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

Last updated 02/07/06