Gangs and Guns

America doesn’t have a gun problem, but it sure as heck has a gang problem.

Quick Take-Aways

  • America has an insanely high concentration of people in gangs – about 953% higher than other countries (see analysis warnings below).
  • Thankfully these are confined mainly to a few really rank cities.
  • American gang culture is not replicated elsewhere
  • Nearly every study associated gang membership with violent crime (including gun homicides).

The Silly Propaganda

When the gun control industry starts complaining about American gun violence, they never mention gangs. When someone (like me) mentions gangs to gun control advocates, they dismiss gangs as a non-issue. As someone who has lived next door to Oakland, California I can attest that it is very much an issue (as it is in Barack Obama’s own Chicago).

Yet it is very different in America. “European cities lack the strong gang traditions that exist in some large U.S. cities,” was how one study summarized the situation. 1 “Hence [European] gangs tend to be less territorial.” In short, gangs elsewhere are little like gangs here.

But despite every beat cop in major metropolitan towns noting that gangs are a big problem, some politicos won’t budge. So I decided to provide some perspective – to present some data on just how big and different America’s gang problem is, and hence their misuse of firearms (about 90% of gang homicides are committed with guns).

Measuring Gangs

This wasn’t easy.

The tracking of gangs across the globe is at best a hodgepodge of roughly similar definitions and either no measurement or reporting. Finding hard numbers is nearly futile. But after a few hours of molesting Google, at least we have the start of a picture.

WARNINGS ABOUT THE ANALYSIS TO FOLLOW: Do not take the following research as robust. Reporting on the number of gang members in any region was sparse, varied by the year of publication, and often did not clearly delineate data. But there was enough to get some perspective, and for now that will do.

The international criminology world has more or less agreed that there are a few types of gangs worth studying:

STREET GANGS: This is what Americans worry about most – Bloods, Crips, MS-13, etc.

OUTLAW BIKER GANGS: Though much smaller in number than street gangs in the U.S., the relative lack of street gangs elsewhere makes biker gangs proportionately larger.

ORGANIZED CRIME GANGS: We have not included these because they are not typically sources of random violence.

PRISON GANGS: Also not included in the analysis since when you are locked up, you can’t cause violence in anyone’s neighborhood.

One problem with cross-national gang comparisons is that the best numbers available are estimates. Gang members rarely queue to answer surveys, and thus the numbers are the best guesses that criminologists could devise.

Stacking ‘em Up

Street gang pentration and population in major cities around the worldWhen we chart the handful of cities for which I could rapidly identify data on gang populations (and note that many countries and cities don’t report gang statistics because gangs are not a significant problem for them), we begin to see the scope of the issue.

When compared to non-American cities around the globe, we see the average gang membership penetration rate to be over nine times as much as overseas. Chicago’s gang penetration rate is 314 times higher than London’s (5.56% vs. 0.02%).

Based on raw numbers alone, and given that all street gangs tend to have violent/sociopathic behaviors, we expect the American violence rate in major metro areas to be proportionately higher (adjustments required for local portion of population being in gangs).

This agrees with the FBI’s findings. Their 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment indicates that 5% of the typical male street gang age population (age 15-24, using the Census Bureau age brackets) are in street gangs. Compare that with say Glasow which sports a mere 0.6% participation rate for the entire city, not just young males.

But this isn’t the whole story. American gangs have a deserved international reputation for “a bit of the old ultraviolence.” According to the FBI’s 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment:

  • Gang members are responsible for an average of 48 percent of violent crime in most jurisdictions.
  • Law enforcement officers report about 44% of homicides are from gang involvement.

Compare this to the snippet we read before: “European cities lack the strong gang traditions that exist in some large U.S. cities.”

So, America has a higher concentration of gang members, and they are vastly more violent than elsewhere. We also know from various government reports that gang violence is by-and-large a big city issue (you know, those same big cities where the mayors do nothing to control gangs but advocate gun control). The FBI in their National Gang Threat Assessment said it simply enough:

“Larger cities and suburban counties accounted for the majority of gang-related violence and more than 96 percent of all gang homicides.”

What This Means for Policy (guns and gangs)

The American issue then is gangs and their guns. So the first question anyone should ask is if there is a legislative solution to the problem of gangland gun violence.

The FBI doesn’t think so. From their National Gang Threat Assessment, the FBI concludes:

“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.”

Strawman purchases have been illegal for decades, and theft has always been so. Universal background checks suddenly sound oddball.

The policy then is to break gangs and the recurring cycle of gang recruitment. This is not a simple task, but it addresses the disease and not the symptoms. It goes to the heart of most violence in America and to the communities most affected by that violence. Gangs are our priority.


The Small Arms Survey has a little info on this. In one report concerning gangs, they say (and I paraphrase) ‘Gangs are a small part of the population, but an over-sized part of violence. Hence, gangs and their behaviors are part of the solution set.’

Portion of Pop % From U.S.
Japan 0.0003 12%
England/Wales 0.0004 15%
Italy 0.0004 15%
United States 0.0026 100%
Columbia 0.0033 127%
Honduras 0.0050 192%

They also had a table of sorts in one publication 2 that reported some gang membership estimates by country. The list is far from complete, missing most of Europe. I only replicated a few for perspective sake.

Key to perspective is the nations lauded for their alleged non-violence also have nearly non-existent gang membership rates. The United States is closer to Columbia and Honduras in gang participation than Japan and England.

The same report also notes that there is “no doubt that
gang members are much more likely to be armed than most young people.” One survey 3 reported that gang member gun ownership rates to be above 77%, and likely higher due to the fear of some convicted felon gang members to truthfully report ownership/possession to anyone.



  1. International Handbook of Violence Research, Heitmeyer, Hagan, Springer Science & Business Media, 2005
  2. Elusive Arsenals, Gang and Group Firearms, Small Arms Survey, 2010
  3. Gun Ownership and Gang Membership, Bjerregaard, Beth and Alan J. Lizotte, 1995, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology


Gangs and Guns — 5 Comments

  1. * It is odd that Chicago that has a lower homicide rate than either San Bernadino or Memphis should have a much higher gang penetration.

    * 6% is a massive figure for Chicago. I am guessing the vast majority of gang members are male and between 15 and 45. 6% is about a quarter of all the people in Chicago in that category. Is that credible bearing mind it includes young men of every race and employment?

    • Idk, I spent almost 3 years in the Chicago area and 6% seems very credible. Seemed like everyone (under 30) was a member of or affiliated with a gang. A lot of girls are in gangs too.

    • How do the country’s largest cities compare? Of America’s three biggest cities, Chicago had the highest violent crime rate at 884.26 violent crimes per capita. New York City had a rate of 596.7 and Los Angeles had a rate of 490.71.

  2. Keep in mind that the stats are for San Bernadino _County_. This may skew some elements. Also, most of Chicago’s homicides are clustered in the south side, leaving the rest of the town relatively violence free, so their homicide rates are reflected against the total population. Would be fun to dig into those numbers, but I won’t find time to do that soon.

    The stats came from Chicago Crime Commission’s gang book. I suspect they are about as good as such estimates get. Again, no time tonight for me to run numbers, but if these estimates are accurate (and given that they also estimated 70 active gangs), then it is possible.

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