Quality of the Research

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Firearm violence prevention programs are disseminated widely in U.S.

public school systems to children ranging in age from 5 to 18. Every day

children are taught to say “no” to guns and violence by educators who use

a variety of methods to get the message across, from depicting the deadly

consequences of firearm violence, to building skills needed to resist peer

pressure, to using peer educators to reach students at risk. On the surface,

this primary prevention approach to reducing firearm deaths and injuries

among children and adolescents appears to be a worthwhile venture. A

closer examination of these programs, however, suggests that present educational

efforts may not be effective at reducing the risk of firearm morbidity

and mortality among children, and in fact may have the opposite effect

for some youth.

Only a few firearm prevention programs have been evaluated for outcome

measures of attitudes and behavior using at least some of the criteria

listed above: pretest data and randomized experimental and control groups.

One of these is Straight Talk about Risks (STAR), a Brady Center to Prevent

Gun Violence program designed to educate children (in pre-K to grade

12) on the risks of handling a firearm. Younger children are taught to

identify a trusted adult, obey rules, and solve problems without fighting.

Lessons for older children center on understanding emotions that may lead

to conflict, identifying mixed messages from the media, dealing with peer

pressure, and learning about implications for victims of gun violence. Evaluations

of STAR have produced mixed results. In a randomized prospective

study design with 600 students, the Education Development Center, Inc.

(LeBrun et al., 1999) found STAR to be most useful for increasing gun

safety knowledge and attitudes for children in grades 3 to 5 and only

moderately helpful for older children. However, in a small randomized

control study of 70 preschool children (mean age 4.77 years), Hardy

(2002b) concludes that STAR-like programs are ineffective in deterring

children’s play with guns.

Of the more than 80 other programs described at least briefly in the

literature, few have been adequately evaluated as to their effectiveness.

Those that have been evaluated provide little empirical evidence that they

have a positive impact on children’s knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs. The

field of firearm violence prevention is in its infancy and thus can draw

lessons from the related fields of injury, violence, and substance abuse

prevention. These fields have experienced the same kinds of developmental

issues. For example, substance abuse scientists recognize that care must be

taken in devising preventive interventions. In the early stages of substance

abuse prevention, prevention programs sometimes increased knowledge

about where to get and how to use drugs and cigarettes (Glasgow et al.,

1981; Goodstadt, 1978; Thompson, 1978). Similarly, simplistic efforts to

educate children about firearms safety and violence are likely to be ineffective

and may be potentially counterproductive. For young children, firearm

violence prevention curricula may be insufficient to overcome their natural

curiosity about guns, impulsivity, and inability to generate preventive strategies

in dangerous situations. For older children, the lessons may be unlikely

to alter their perceptions of invulnerability and overcome the influence

of peer pressure. Moreover, the lessons may result in increases in the

very behaviors they are designed to prevent, by enhancing the allure of guns

for young children and by establishing a false norm of gun-carrying for

adolescents.

In light of the lack of evidence, the committee recommends that existing

and future firearm violence prevention programs should be based on

general prevention theory and research and incorporate evaluation into

implementation design. Theory—that is, education, psychological and sociological

theories—can be used to formulate prevention programs. This is

widely the case in the field of preventive interventions (see Flay, 2002).

Prevention scientists use a sequence of studies to test the utility of the

theories for prevention and aid in the further refinement of the prevention

program (Flay and Best, 1982). These studies are conducted prior to widescale

evaluation of the prevention program (Flay, 1986, 2002). Similarly,

the ideas and theories underlying firearm violence prevention programs

should be tested and refined by a sequence of studies. These studies may

include structured laboratory observations—that is, researchers working

closely with the schools and community groups can recruit a representative

sample of children and adolescents and randomize the children to experimental

and comparison conditions, collect pretest and posttest behavior,

and structure an experimental setting to elicit the targeted behavior.