The Role of Gangs

The Role of Gangs


One of the more robust findings to emerge from both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies of youth addresses the relationship between gang membership and individual levels of delinquency and offending. Research in both the US and Canada has demonstrated that even after controlling for individual-level attributes gang members are more delinquent and commit more crime than do non-gang members (Esbensen and Huizinga 1993; Thornberry, Krohn, Lizotte, and Chard-Wierschem 1993; Huizinga 1997; Thornberry et al. 2003; Huff 2004; Gatti, Tremblay, Vitaro, and McDuff, 2005). The conclusion drawn most frequently from these findings is that the observed positive relationship between gang membership and offending levels cannot be explained through a simple process of self-selection, wherein only highly delinquent youth join gangs.

Instead, there are additional influences that gang membership brings to bear in facilitating higher levels of offending among individuals who join. This is especially true for behaviors related to guns and violence. For instance, a recent study in Canada has shown that participation in gangs greatly increases the probability that a juvenile will be involved in an altercation (as offender or victim) involving guns (Erickson and Butters, 2006). A consistent story emerges from a series of studies conducted in such US cities as Denver, CO, Pittsburgh, PA, Rochester, NY and Seattle, WA. Using longitudinal data on youth, the researchers were able to identify whether or not an individual joined a gang, and for those who did join, the length of one’s active membership in the gang. The findings clearly show that gang members were more likely to carry, use, and/or be victimized by a firearm. Furthermore, within the sample of individuals who did join a gang, the association with firearms was highest when the youth was active in the gang and retreated during periods of non-gang membership. 

The above finding has implications for patterns and levels of firearm violence at the community level. As membership in a gang facilitates an increase in individual-level firearm related violence, that violence tends to be spatially concentrated around “set space” (the activity space) of gangs.  The research producing the aggregate level finding was conducted in what is known as an “emerging” gang city. This label refers to the class of cities that only began to experience serious problems with violent urban street gangs in the early 1990s. The other class of cities include places like Los Angeles and Chicago, which have had a long history of gangs and are known as “chronic” gang cities. Though some of the initial emergent gang cities have experienced a significant decline in gang activity, others appear well on their way towards becoming “chronic” gang cities. The problem of violent urban street gangs in Canada appears to be recent enough that it can be thought of in the context of “emerging.”

Very little is known generally about how urban street gangs evolve over time within the class of emerging gang cities. Canada may provide social scientists with an invaluable opportunity to study youth groups and gangs to determine the conditions that support the evolution of local gangs from loosely affiliated groups into local neighborhood institutions. Furthermore, it is important to gain some understanding of the types of intervention activities that might be most effective at stunting such development before gangs and gang violence become a “chronic” problem. This latter point is especially important within the Canadian context as studies in the United States have demonstrated that gangs and gang violence often begins in major metropolitan areas and spreads to smaller cities. Gangs have already diffused to smaller cities and rural areas in Canada forcing local officials to confront the problem of gangs and their related criminal activity. Fortunately, however, the evidence to date suggests that gun violence involving gangs is primarily impacting the largest CMAs.

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