Disclaimer: It is incredibly hard to find actual statistics about gang related gun violence. This is due to the way data is collected on gang crime. From the National Gang Center: “An additional concern is the varying methods by which homicides are classified as “gang-related.” The most commonly used is the “member-based” approach, in which a homicide is classified as gang-related if the victim was and/or the perpetrator is a gang member. Some agencies also utilize a more restrictive classification method called the “motive-based” approach, which involves substantiating that the crime furthers the interests of the entire gang.” Also, consider that no politician or sheriff wants to admit they have a gang-problem, especially when it comes time for re-election.
There is no doubt gun violence in the United States is an issue. Each year tens of thousands of people are killed, wounded, or assaulted by a gun. And this number could be even higher as the number of assaults is most likely under reported. We can look at this rash of violence and say the tool is the problem or we can look at reasons why this violence happens, and try to come up with more long term solutions.
Depending on what source you use, anywhere from 13-80% of gun crime is gang related, and this number is most likely higher as gang violence is often under reported due to gang related crimes receiving “enhanced” sentences. So what does that mean? If we target gang violence, our violent gun crime stats will go down and those innocents who die in gang warfare as collateral damage will no doubt be spared. But how do we target gangs? We can continue to do as we have: create gang task forces, arrest gang members and put them in jail. The recidivism rate of gang members is around 80%, so obviously incarceration isn’t much of a deterrent, and in actuality, probably cements gang affiliation. Maybe if the task force is lucky, they will net the big fish and cut the head off of the snake. Of course, if there is anything we have learned from the drug cartels and terrorist organizations in the Middle East, it is that eliminating the leader only creates a power vacuum in which more violence occurs between members as they vie for power during restructuring and opposing groups look to capitalize on potential weaknesses. While this may be the current treatment, it probably is not the best long term option.
With “homicide associated with criminal enterprise” making up 13-80% of gun homicides, it is clear that something must be done to eradicate gangs. But what? For a minute, let us use our minds and think how else we can manage gangs. We have already seen that dismantling a gang by arresting members for the purpose of rehabilitation does not work. We have tried educating students and creating mentoring programs, and while they may have helped some teens escape gang violence, it obviously has not solved the problem.
Let’s address the risk factors. A quick google search as to the reasoning behind why children join gangs gives us a list of mostly social reasons: camaraderie, peer pressure, boredom, and poverty. The last, is where the secret ingredient to the attack on gangs lies: poverty. “But we’ve created programs to lift people out of poverty, and we still have poverty!” Yes, and they haven’t worked, at least not as well as gang revenue streams. People join gangs because they create a source of income, and often, they can be rather lucrative. Consider that as a young teen, you might get you might get paid for just putting a package behind a rock, or collecting some cash from a stranger, or maybe just hanging out on the corner, ready to sound the alarm when the authorities come rolling through.
So how do we remove the lucrativeness of gang life? Figure out how they get paid, and stop paying them. According to the FBI’s National Gang Report, “street gang activity continues to be oriented toward violent crimes, such as assault, drug trafficking, home invasions, homicide, intimidation, threats, weapons trafficking and sex trafficking.” That’s a pretty ugly list, though if we examine the categories given by the FBI, we realize that almost half of those are not actually violent in and of themselves: drug trafficking, weapons trafficking and sex trafficking. (Yes sex trafficking of those unwilling participants is violent, but the definition of sex trafficking also includes prostitution by willing participants.) And according to the FBI’s graphic of Street Gang Involvement in Criminal Activity, street level drugs sales is the runaway leader with assault a distant second. So the number one source of gang funding comes from street level drug sales, which, in reality, is a victimless crime, as is prostitution and even weapons trafficking.
Another reason law enforcement have such a hard time keeping gangs under control is due to the fact that the community often is uncooperative and this can be for a couple of factors. Certainly there is a fair bit of fear that may come from reporting on a gang that operates in your apartment building. Should it come back that you reported someone to the police, you will have just made a large number of enemies, and in some cases, maybe even signed your death warrant. There is also the fact that relationships between law enforcement officers and local minority communities is not always the best. It is no secret that the War on Drugs has been used to target minority communities; couple this with the fact that police are seen brutalizing and sometimes murdering suspects for non-violent crimes, and it is easy to see why communities become uncooperative: no one wants to be the person that makes a phone call that has an acquaintance murdered by the police, or locked in a cage for 10 years.
When we look at drugs, prostitution and illegal weapon sales, we automatically envision violence: a poorly lit, seedy hotel, with hourly rates and neon lights, a pimp forcing a woman to sell her body for money, briefcases of cash and paraphernalia. And admittedly, none of that is good. But if I were to go to the pharmacy to fill my prescription for Oxycontin, or I went down to the local sporting goods store to pick up a firearm, I am not confronted with this questionable environment, rather, this questionable environment is created out of fear and secrecy. When things are legalized there is no need for secrecy – at least not in the sense of legality – instead legalization opens these markets up to the general populace and in turn, free market regulation, driving the price down. We also must consider that when something becomes legal the risk factor that is associated with sales goes away, bringing the price of the product down even more. And with competition from providers, when John D. and the Bluebells start selling bad crank, users have the ability to go elsewhere, in turn keeping John D. honest, or driving him out of business.
If non-violent crimes are decriminalized and allowed to operate on the free market, this would have a huge impact on gang finances. It would drive the price of the service provided by a gang much lower as legal competition would arise and this would certainly make gang life less desirable. It will also cause gang related violence to drop. Gang violence almost exclusively effects members of the gangs involved, and one of the key reasons for gang violence is territory disputes – i.e. where drugs and guns can be sold, where prostitution happens, etc. When these non-violent crimes are legalized, there is essentially no need for territory: pharmacies and brothels could exist legitimately essentially anywhere. Certainly there may be some backlash from the gangs as they see their finances eroding, but this violence would not be tolerated by the communities and would eventually dissipate. Whereas before, gangs were involved in both violent and non-violent crime, now they are engaged solely in violent crime – extortion, burglary, human trafficking of the forced variety, etc. – suddenly, local communities have a reason not to tolerate gangs as they move from everyday supplier and common-man to aggressive bully.
With these non-violent crimes legalized, less individuals are separated from their families and are allowed to stay and continue to be role models for their children. 70% of gang members come from single parent households in which the father is not present. Surely, some of those father’s are absent of their own volition, but a good percentage of those fathers were likely removed by the State for a non-violent crime.
By ending the War on Drugs and other non-violent crimes, we take away a significant portion of gang income, we turn gangs from community protector and common-man to aggressive bully, and we mitigate one of the biggest gang risk factors by keeping families together. In turn, with smaller, less powerful gangs, we will see a lower level of gang violence and death.
CDC – National Vital Stastics Report
National Institute of Justice