The FBI's 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment report states that there are 1.4 million active gang members comprising more than 33,000 gangs in the United States. Gang violence is a serious issue significantly contributing to violent crime, including homicides. Gang membership is rapidly increasing; the 2011 report indicates a 40% growth in gang membership since the 2009 report.
The current gun control debate in the U.S. is long on emotion and cosmetic approaches to reducing violence, but short on meaningful solutions that address the underlying causes of violence. Tacking the underlying causes may not be as immediately gratifying in terms of producing swift results; however, if we are serious about reducing crime, shouldn't we consider the underlying factors? One of those underlying causes is gang activity, which accounts for “an average of 48% of violent crime in most jurisdictions,” and up to 90% in some jurisdictions.
Gang violence doesn't usually result in mass shootings or killing sprees. However, mass murder accounts for less than 1% of U.S. homicides (less than 100 in 2012, and annual homicides around 13,000). Most murders occur in less-then-media-sensational events, unless the victim is notable in some way; for instance, Hadiya Pendleton of Chicago, who was shot by a gang member shortly after playing at President Obama's 2013 Inauguration in January. Gang violence is interconnected with other underlying causes of violence stemming from drug abuse (the single largest predictor of violence), and concentrated urban poverty. But by itself, gang violence is a serious issue underlying gun violence in the U.S.
Major cities and suburban areas experience the most gang-related violence and more than 96% of all gang homicides in 2009. Local neighborhood-based gangs and drug crews continue to pose the most significant criminal threat in most communities. Law enforcement officials in 34 jurisdictions report that the majority of gang-related crime is committed with firearms. Worth greater exploration is the comparison of homicide rates per capita in large vs. small cities and suburban areas. If the rate per capita increases as population increases, the fact that gang-related crime occurs more in cities and larger suburban areas becomes even more significant. Though the report doesn't state the exact number of homicides attributable to gangs, it does state that gangs engage in a number of related violent crimes, such as armed robbery, drug and weapons trafficking, extortion, firearms offenses, home invasions, shootings, street-level drug distribution, theft, and violent assaults.
The report states “gang recruitment of active duty military personnel constitutes a significant criminal threat to the U.S. military.” Gang infiltration of the military continues to pose a significant criminal threat, as members of at least 53 gangs have been identified on both domestic and international military installations. This is also a threat to the general public – gang members who learn advanced weaponry and combat techniques in the military are at risk of employing these skills on the street when they return to their communities.
Gang members acquire so-called "assault weapons" and steal military equipment. This poses a significant threat because of the potential to engage in lethal encounters with law enforcement officers and civilians. Typically firearms are acquired through illegal purchases; straw purchases via surrogates or middle-men, and thefts from individuals, vehicles, residences and commercial establishments. Gang members also target military and law enforcement officials, facilities, and vehicles to obtain weapons, ammunition, body armor, police gear, badges, uniforms, and official identification. In 2009, suspected gang members in Broward County and West Palm Beach, Florida burglarized nearly a dozen marked and unmarked law enforcement vehicles stealing firearms, ballistic vests, and police identification.
Other key findings:
- Gangs are expanding, evolving and posing an increasing threat to U.S. communities nationwide.
- Gangs encourage members, associates, and relatives to obtain law enforcement, judiciary, or legal employment in order to gather information on rival gangs and law enforcement operations.
- Gangs also engage in less typical and lower-risk crime, such as prostitution and white-collar crime. This includes alien smuggling, human trafficking, prostitution counterfeiting, identity theft, and mortgage fraud.
- Gangs have expanded through aggressive recruitment of juveniles and immigrants, alliances and conflict between gangs, the release of incarcerated gang members from prison, advancements in technology and communication, and Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (MDTOs).
- U.S.-based gangs have established strong working relationships with Central American and Mexican Drug Trade Organizations to perpetrate illicit cross-border activity, as well as with some organized crime groups in some regions of the United States. These groups are establishing wide-reaching drug networks; assisting in the smuggling of drugs, weapons, and illegal immigrants along the Southwest Border; and serving as enforcers for MDTO interests on the U.S. side of the border.
- Gangs are becoming increasingly adaptable and sophisticated, employing new and advanced technology to facilitate criminal activity discreetly, enhance their criminal operations, and connect with other gang members, criminal organizations, and potential recruits nationwide and even worldwide.
Like many aspects of the gun debate, the issue of gangs as it relates to gun violence is not given to simple band-aid solutions. If there were simple solutions that we had failed to employ, we'd have collectively failed miserably. The solutions to the gang problem as a whole are also not likely to be simplistic; results are probably not likely to rapidly occur. Yet if we are serious about reducing gun violence and other violence in the United States, these are the challenges we must address.