Inner-city Guns

For decades, the raw data has shown that the bulk of gun crimes, woundings and deaths occur in the inner cities and are closely associated with gangs.

What we don’t have a great deal of clarity about is why and how this situation has come to dominate gun violence. Forget the statistically rare mass public shootings, the even more rare terrorist events, and even the plummeting rates of gun accidents.

If you are actually serious about “gun safety,” then you focus on what is occurring inside of major metro areas. Seventeen people died in the Parkland High School shooting. That many high school aged blacks die every week from gun violence, and these deaths are not tied to mass murders.

Thanks to the Center for Court Innovation, we have some added clarity.

“Gotta Make Your Own Heaven”

That is the title of a solid bit of research 1 published in August of 2020 and funded by the federal Department of Justice (errrr, what was someone saying about there being a lack of gun violence research funding?).

This is a small study of three neighborhoods in New York, so great caution needs to be taken in expanding this to national conclusions. But the study focused intently on “at risk” young people and their involvement with guns.

A point of praise goes to the researchers and anyone else who tries to do a statistically sound review of gang-centric crime. You cannot simply roll into a bad neighborhood and start polling people. The degree of distrust is high among the residents, more so for people not of their neighborhood, and positively zero for anyone who might be associated with the law. The researchers used intermediaries who knew the culture, the gangs, the music and such to get many respondents and even get inside of gang buildings.

Some topline numbers

Let’s start with some hard numbers, and later we’ll wrap a little texture around it.

For respondents ages 16 thru 24:


81%: Been shot or shot at

88%: Have a family member of friend who has been shot or shot at

70%: Have witnessed someone being shot


Gun access by at-risk inner city youths in New York87%: Have owned or carried a gun

68%: Carry guns in public, 51% at parties or social events

58%: Easy to get a gun if needed (from local networks)

63%: Acquired first gun at age 14–17 (20% under age 14)


78%: Live in areas with “a lot of crime”

44%: Hear gunshots at least weekly, 70% at least monthly

77%: Carry guns for safety, 52% feel less likely to be a victim


95%: Aware of gangs in their neighborhood

93%: Gangs provide material and emotional support

91%: Believe gangs provide protection for their members

25%: Feel pressure to join a gang

71%: Enjoyed being a gang member


78%: Reside in public housing

63%: Raised by a single parent

32%: Earn money through illicit jobs

26%: Feel that neighbors don’t trust each other

20%: Their illicit jobs “require” them to carry guns


91%: Stopped by police in the last two years

88%: Have arrest records

38%: Have gun charges against them

57%: First arrest before age 16


Unquantified: High use of marijuana to impede violent reactions, including misusing guns

Unquantified: Sees gangs as a source of love and community they lack at home (keywords – brotherhood, family)

Let’s summarize. For these people who are prime gangs+crime+guns participants:

  • Low family structure, leading to seeking such from the fraternity of gangs.
  • Live in a crime-plagued neighborhood.
  • Have easy access to guns via underground network, including gangs.
  • Acquire guns in their early teens and carry them regularly.
  • Are arrested for the first time in their mid-teens.

Some subculture statements

Without copying and pasting, here are some of the narratives that illustrate why this has been a multi-decade problem:

Their social structure – be it family or neighborhood – is dysfunctional. Parents are dead, in jail or use drugs. Children are raised in an environment without strong affection, guidance or control.

In these neighborhoods gangs are the social and economic base. The gangs provide affection, guidance, control and a chance to earn money, albeit through criminal activity. Crime is the norm in these neighborhoods, so the resistance to becoming a gang-centered criminal is low.

Though we did not summarize the stats, there is a widespread assumption that the police are a force for harassment (over petty crimes), operate as a gang themselves, and have very little interest in protecting and serving the tough neighborhoods. This includes a belief that the police do not actually protect residents from violence.


As you see, there are several vectors that lead to criminal activity, typically within gangs, solidly within inner cities. These vectors are the progenitors of most American gun violence, and thus the primary place to focus attention.

But we also see that the established underground networks for acquiring guns negates the effect of any retail-level gun control. Stated more simply, restricting retail gun sales will have no effect on the largest portion of gun violence.


  1. Gotta Make Your Own Heaven; Swaner, White, Martinez, Camacho, Spate, Alexander, Webb, Evans; Center for Court Innovation; August 2020


Inner-city Guns — 4 Comments

  1. Hi Guy,

    Saw a typo under ‘Some Subculture Statements’ 2nd sentence – ‘patents’ (I think should read as parents). Maybe there’s only one L at the final subsection (‘Unraveling’)

    You nailed it with this one (for me, at least). It seems so (anecdotally) obvious that maybe 90% of all gun violence is gang/drug related and tied most notably to a specific set of inner cities. But as you cautioned a few years back, FBI data limitations don’t offer the factual support.

    There may be value to building up awareness before making that last statement about ‘Unraveling’. It’s one of those aspects that students of the area understand inherently, but most of the public not so much. Reference to The Chicago Trace Report may help evidence a factual basis. Year after year, roughly 95% of all the guns recovered after criminal activity are found to have been acquired and possessed illegally.

    Maybe a subject for a different day.. extent to which gangs may be leveraging the ghost gun industry. When an enterprising minor with a drill press and credit card can acquire unimpeded everything needed to build a franken-glock or AR rifle (or pistol) for a few hundred bucks, maybe some legal adjustments are warranted. (but which ones? and is it an issue worth tackling).

    • Thanks for the typo catch.

      Yes, both public awareness and structured unraveling of the underlying causes are essential.

  2. I was most struck by the prevalence of gun carry for self-defense. In other words, inner-city youth carry guns for the same reason we OFWGs carry. What could we possibly do about that which would have a net positive result?

    It seems probable that the unlawful homicide rates observed in inner-cities are NOT evenly distributed across the entire carry population. A small proportion of carriers are UN-lawfully killing most of the victims. The majority are killing no one. (Some of this majority may kill/wound in self-defense only.) IF this is taken (or discovered) to be true, then what?

    Stop & Frisk – is apt to target the majority of carriers NOT producing the unlawful homicides. This measure would seem to be unproductive at best and, arguably, counter-productive. A better approach would be to adopt Constitutional-Carry to inner-city teenagers so that the majority of de-facto carriers could be legalized. (I’m not suggesting this is politically feasible; merely that it’s an implication of this line of inquiry.)

    Enforcement of Felon-in-Possession – is likewise apt to target the majority of carriers NOT producing the unlawful homicides.

    Enforcement of Homicide laws – is likely to be unproductive; and, in many cases, counter-productive. Those perpetrators committing the majority of homicides are likely “good at it” in the sense of avoiding being caught. The anti-snitch culture ensures that few of these perps are identified, let alone successfully prosecuted. Those few who are successfully prosecuted are sentenced to terms too short to prevent their return to the streets; or, they are paroled. Sentences run concurrently such that the homicide-by-gun crime is at best a marginal deterrent to some other crime; e.g., 4 years for aggravated assault with a concurrent sentence of 5 years for homicide-by-gun isn’t going to persuade a perp to use a knife.

    Conversely, those who are identified, arrested and prosecuted MIGHT be individuals who keep/carry a gun for self-defense yet are not especially hostile. The circumstances of a homicide are NOT usually clear-cut. Suppose a sympathetic inner-city resident who kills another with his gun. The odds that he dotted all his ‘i’s and crossed all his ‘t’s in the self-defense laws are really poor. He is likely to be identified and prosecuted because he isn’t a skillful assassin; he is apt to be caught “with a smoking gun”. Mounting a successful self-defense case is a six-figure proposition; say $100,000 in lawyers, investigators and expert witnesses. Our supposed sympathetic inner-city resident is a cake-walk for a prosecutor intent on showing he is tough on gun crime.

    I see the prospects for successful gun-crime-control in these inner-cities as very bleak. Gun-control on the relatively peaceful inhabitants seems tantamount to turning these precincts over to the habitually violent and lawless. Adopting a highly liberal approach to gun-control (e.g., Constitutional Carry for 16 year-olds, as is the law in Vermont) could be tantamount to abandonment of the rule-of-law in these precincts. Neither is intrinsically attractive. It is by no means clear which of these two approaches is apt to reduce mortality/morbidity by gunshot.

    I see only one guiding light – principle – that might be useful:
    – Where government can NOT make the situation BETTER,
    – it should, at least, REFRAIN from making the situation WORSE.

    Unfortunately, this principle runs head-long against our natural instinct to cry: “There ought to be a LAW!!!” whenever anyone points out a problem.

    • Thanks for the well reasoned comment.

      It comes down to “trust”. In the same report, it was noted that trust, even outside of gang activities, was low. No trust between neighbors, much less neighborhoods.

      The long-term solution is to create communities where trust is higher. The involves getting the bad actors (serious thugs and violent predators) into jails. Next is dismantling gangs since they specifically set-up gang rivalries, which is enforced with violence. Dismantling gangs is not going to be easy or fast, but stats indicate the war on drugs may be a big mistake (too much profit motive). Altering the community tolerance of gangs will be necessary too, but changing public culture is a big, big, big process.

      Those factors along — thugs and gangs/drugs — likely would cut street violence by 3/4 or more, and thus reduce the desire to illegally carry guns.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *