The Centers for Disease Control has completed and released the results of a massive new study of gang violence, conducted by analyzing data collected in five cities — Long Beach, Oakland and Los Angeles in California, Oklahoma City and Newark, N.J. In one study, they manage to debunk the “drugs fuel practically all gang violence” talking point/panicbutton that has been taken at face value and unchallenged, literally for decades.
As it turns out, drugs are not much of a factor at all in gang violence and homicides. Instead, the CDC found, homicides of gang members are driven by grudges, coupled with the ready availability of firearms.
Gang homicides almost always involve guns, frequently occur in public and often are the result of drive-by shootings. Typically, two people from rival gangs see one another in a public place, and contention quickly escalates to gunplay and homicide. Sometimes the guns come out on the spot, sometimes a drive-by is penciled in for later.
In the cities studied, the percentage of gang killings that were drug-related ranged from zero in Long Beach to about 25 percent in Oklahoma City.
Only in Newark did the number of drug killings related to gangs significantly exceed those involving non-gang members.
“A possible explanation of this divergent finding could be that Newark is experiencing homicides by gangs formed specifically for drug trade,” the CDC said.
Nationwide, homicide is the second leading cause of death among those aged 15-24, the CDC said. In Los Angeles and Long Beach, gang killings account for the majority of homicides in that age group.
The study provides empirical evidence for several things I observed when I was working traumas in the inner city, especially the young age of most of the victims. Early in my career, they weren’t that much older than my own children, or they were the same age as the children of my friends and coworkers. A couple of years later, they were the same age as my kids.
But there was one huge, life-altering difference…my kids grew up, and far to many of the children who came into my trauma bay never did.
I have shed many, many tears over wasted lives, and the plaintive wails of mothers who have just been told that their baby is dead will ring in my ears until the day I die.
The hard, cold reality is that victims of gang violence tend to be young. Indeed, homicide is the second-leading cause of death for those in the 15-19 age bracket, exceeded only by accidents. In fact, the victims of gang homicides in that cohort accounted for between 27 and 42 percent of gang-related homicide victims in the cities the study surveyed. When gangs are taken out of the equation, those numbers fall dramatically, to a range of 9 to 14 percent for non-gang murders.
The study also found that in Los Angeles and Oklahoma City, nearly a fourth of gang killings occurred in drive-by shootings. In all five cities, more than 90 percent of the killings involved firearms, and the killings were more likely to occur in public than non-gang deaths.
This suggests that “gang homicides are quick, retaliatory reactions to ongoing gang-related conflict,” the CDC said.
The findings highlight the need to deter gang involvement early in adolescence and to teach young people to resolve conflict nonviolently, the agency said.
“These homicides are preventable,” CDC epidemic intelligence service officer Dawn McDaniel told Reuters. “We need programs targeted at adolescents before they reach the ages of 15-19 to prevent them from joining gangs and being put at risk for gang violence in the first place.”
I can’t disagree with that assessment — but ask any developmentalist and they will tell you that teenagers aren’t finished yet. The human brain continues to develop until we are around 25 — and the last part to develop, the prefrontal cortex, is where impulse control comes from.
All the intervention and interdiction programs in the world are not going to make brains develop any faster, and they aren’t going to stem the easy availability of guns. And the only way that the easy availability of guns is going to wane will require politicians with the courage to stand up to the NRA. In other words…I ain’t holding my breath with the crop of pusillanimous cowards that populate the current congress.
[This post is written as part of the Media Matters Gun Facts fellowship. The purpose of the fellowship is to further Media Matters’ mission to comprehensively monitor, analyze, and correct conservative misinformation in the U.S. media Some of the worst misinformation occurs around the issue of guns, gun violence, and extremism. The fellowship program is designed to fight this misinformation with facts.]