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Health Objectives for the Nation Weapon-Carrying Among High School Students -- United States, 1990

From 1980 through 1989, more than 11,000 persons died in the United States as a result of homicides committed by high school-aged youth using firearms, cutting instruments, or blunt objects (Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Reports, Supplementary Homicide Report Files, unpublished data, 1980-1989). Firearm-related homicides accounted for more than 65% of these fatalities. Immediate access to a potentially lethal weapon, especially a firearm, may increase the likelihood that a lethal event would result from a violent altercation (1,2). This article presents the prevalence and incidence of self-reported weapon-carrying among high school students in grades 9-12 in the United States during 1990.

The 1990 national school-based Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) is a component of the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, which periodically measures the prevalence of priority health-risk behaviors among youth through comparable national, state, and local surveys (3). A three-stage sample design was used to obtain a representative sample of 11,631 students in grades 9-12 in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Students were asked as part of the YRBS: "During the past 30 days, how many times have you carried a weapon, such as a gun, knife, or club, for self-protection or because you thought you might need it in a fight?" and "What kind of weapon did you usually carry?" In this report, incidence rates* describe the number of times, per 100 students, that weapons were carried during the 30-day period. Students were not asked if they carried weapons onto school grounds.

Nearly 20% of all students in grades 9-12 reported they had carried a weapon at least once during the 30 days preceding the survey (Table 1). Male students (31.5%) were significantly more likely than female students (8.1%) to report having carried a weapon. Hispanic (41.1%) and black (39.4%) male students were significantly more likely to report having carried a weapon than were white (28.6%) male students. Of the students who reported having carried weapons during the 30 days preceding the survey, 25.0% said they did so only once; 32.2%, two or three times; 7.4%, four or five times; and 35.5%, six or more times.

An estimated 71 weapon-carrying incidents occurred per 100 students per month (Table 2). The incidence of weapon-carrying was approximately four times higher for male (116 incidents per 100 students) than for female (27 incidents per 100) students. The incidence was highest for Hispanic (162 incidents per 100) male, followed by black (154 incidents per 100) and white (100 incidents per 100) male students. Students who reported carrying weapons four or more times during the 30 days preceding the survey (8.7% of all students) accounted for nearly three fourths (70.9%) of weapon-carrying incidents.

Among students who carried a weapon, knives or razors (55.2%; 95% confidence interval (CI)=51.3%-59.1%) were carried significantly more often than clubs (24.0%; 95% CI=20.7%-27.3%) or firearms (20.8%; 95% CI=17.0%-24.6%). Most students who reported carrying firearms carried handguns. Among black male students who carried a weapon, firearms (54.2%; 95% CI=41.1%-67.3%) were the most frequently carried weapon. Among white and Hispanic male students who carried a weapon, knives and razors were the most frequently carried weapons (54.7% (95% CI=49.0%-60.4%) and 46.9% (95% CI=38.9%-54.9%), respectively). Reported by: Div of Injury Control, National Center for Environmental Health and Injury Control; Div of Adolescent and School Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: Data from the 1990 YRBS indicate that approximately one of every five high school students carried a firearm, knife, or club at least one time during the 30 days preceding the survey. Approximately one of 20 students carried a firearm, usually a handgun. Black and Hispanic males--those students who were most likely to have carried potentially lethal weapons--have also been at highest risk for homicide victimization (4).

One of the national health objectives for the year 2000 is to "reduce by 20 percent the incidence of weapon-carrying by adolescents aged 14 through 17" (objective 7.10) (5). The 1990 YRBS baseline data indicate that 71 weapon-carrying episodes occurred per 100 students during the 30 days preceding the survey. To achieve the year 2000 objective, this incidence rate must be reduced to 57 episodes per 100 students per month.

Plans to achieve this national objective and prevent weapon-related deaths and injuries among youth should address the following considerations. First, because most weapon-carrying incidents are attributed to a relatively small proportion of adolescents, programs to reduce weapon-carrying should target frequent weapon carriers, as well as their peers and families. Second, because firearms, particularly handguns, are the weapon most highly associated with fatal events, weapon-related fatalities will be prevented most effectively by reductions in firearm-carrying. Third, because the risk for being assaulted is an important motivation for weapon-carrying (6), programs should attempt to reduce the perceived or actual risk for victimization that underlies the need many students feel to carry weapons for self-protection.

School systems have employed various strategies to confiscate weapons and deter students from bringing weapons onto school grounds (7) including random locker searches, walk-throughs with metal detectors, and policies requiring clear plastic or mesh book bags so that weapons cannot be hidden easily. Because weapon-carrying also occurs outside the school, however, these strategies should be combined with curricula and counseling programs that teach students nonviolent conflict resolution skills and discourage weapon-carrying (8). Complementary educational and legal strategies are also needed at the community level. For example, educational campaigns may help parents reduce their children's access to weapons (e.g., storing weapons and ammunition separately and under lock and key) and communicate to their children the potential consequences of weapon-carrying. Moreover, the apparent effectiveness of prohibiting public firearm-carrying for reducing firearm-related homicides (9,10) suggests that additional legal sanctions may also deter adolescents from firearm-carrying.


  1. Zimring FE. Is gun control likely to reduce violent killings? University of Chicago Law Review 1968;35:721-37.

  2. Cook PJ. The technology of personal violence. In: Tonry M, ed. Crime and justice: an annual review of research. 14th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

  3. Kolbe LJ. An epidemiological surveillance system to monitor the prevalence of youth behaviors that most affect health. Health Education 1990;21:44-8.

  4. CDC. Homicide surveillance: high-risk racial and ethnic groups--blacks and Hispanics, 1970 to 1983. Atlanta: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, 1986.

  5. Public Health Service. Healthy people 2000: national health promotion and disease prevention objectives--full report, with commentary. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, 1991:236; DHHS publication no. (PHS)91-50212.

  6. Young RL, McDowell D, Loftin C. Collective security and the ownership of firearms for protection. Criminology 1987;25:47-62.

  7. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Weapons in schools. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1989. (OJJDP Juvenile Justice Bulletin).

  8. Prothrow-Stith D. Violence prevention curriculum for adolescents. Newton, Massachusetts: Education Development Center, 1987.

  9. Deutsch SJ, Alt FB. The effect of Massachusetts' gun control law on gun-related crimes in the city of Boston. Evaluation Quarterly 1977;1:543-68.

  10. O'Carroll PW, Loftin C, Waller JB, et al. Preventing homicide: an evaluation of the efficacy of a Detroit gun ordinance. Am J Public Health 1991;81:576-81. *The incidence rate was calculated by adding the number of times each student reported carrying a weapon during the 30 days preceding the survey and dividing this sum by the total number of students. The number of weapon-carrying episodes per student was then multiplied by 100 to determine the incidence rate per 100 students. Students who replied that they carried a weapon two or three times were assigned a weapon-carrying frequency of 2.5; four or five times, 4.5; and six or more times, 6.

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