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Gun violence has remained a leading cause of death amongst adolescents aged 12-24 in the United States for the past two decades (Child Trends, 2014), and is most prevalent in inner-cities with high levels of gang activity (Stretesky & Pogrebin, 2007). Gang-related gun violence is responsible for the death of an average of over 2,000 youth living in the U.S. each year (NYGS, 2007). Additionally, various sub-groups of adolescents are disproportionately affected by gun violence, with race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and gender all associated with risk level.
This paper aims to provide background on and demonstrate the extent of gang-related gun violence occurring amongst inner-city adolescents, and to examine the various initiatives in place aimed at reducing this violence.
Gun violence is a public health issue worldwide, but rates differ greatly across countries (Grinshteyn & Hemenway, 2016). The United States has the highest rate of gun violence amongst all high-income countries, with 8.9 out of every 100,000 adolescents killed by firearms each year (AMA, 2014).
This is several times the rate of the high-income country with the second highest rate of gun violence, Portugal, where 0.5 out of every 100,000 adolescents are killed by firearms each year (Grinshteyn & Hemenway, 2016). The gun violence rate among U.S. youths ages 15 to 24 is 49 times as high as the rate for youths in other high-income nations (Grinshteyn & Hemenway, 2016).
A significant percentage of gun violence in the U.S. is gang-related. In the U.S., there have been over 30,000 gangs identified as currently operating, defined as “a group [that] has three or more members generally aged 12–24 […] where members share an identity.
Members view themselves as a gang, and they are recognized by others as a gang. The group is involved in an elevated level of criminal activity” (Howell, 2003). Gang-related gun violence amongst adolescents is most concentrated within inner cities. Additionally, the majority of this violence occurs within low-income neighborhoods with high rates of violent crime (Beardslee, Mulvey, Schubert, Allison, Infante, & Pardini, 2018). Typically, these cities have high levels of unemployment, and most citizens are relatively uneducated, with the majority having completed no higher education (Beardslee et al., 2018).
The American public has called upon politicians to help reduce the gun violence in inner cities for decades ( ). The high levels of gun violence occurring in the U.S. have incited debates on gun laws, and about whether there should be increased gun control to reduce such violence. Additionally, there has been a great deal of recent attention on the issue, as President Trump has been vocal throughout his campaign about his desire to reduce gun violence in the city of Chicago, and has expressed support for removing restrictions on stop and frisk police tactics (Gorner, 2017). Additionally, the Trump administration sent additional agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to Chicago in 2017 and 2018 to combat the problem (Gorner, 2017). This focus on gun violence in Chicago has recently brought gang-related gun violence amongst adolescents to the forefront of U.S. media attention.
Etiology: Gangs tend to form in low-income and high-violence areas of inner cities, where individuals have few economic opportunities and are at a high risk of becoming a victim of violent crime (Beardslee et al., 2018). Adolescents choose to join gangs for a multitude of reasons, often related to the conditions in which they live. Motivations for joining gangs include protection from other gangs in the area, money, social acceptance, and respect (Stretesky & Pogrebin, 2007). Once adolescents become gang members, there are many different reasons that adolescents might commit acts of gun violence, including self-defense, retaliation, gang initiation, and to gain peer respect (Stretesky & Pogrebin, 2007). Gang members are significantly more likely to carry a gun, and are more willing to use a gun in a variety of situations (Milam, Furr-Holden, Leaf, & Webster, 2018). Additionally, the majority of victims of gang-related gun violence are gang members themselves, or former gang members (Wallace, 2017).
Problem Severity: The prevalence of gang involvement in the United States is as high as 5% amongst inner city adolescents aged 12-24 (Lenzi, Sharkey, Vineo, Mayworm, Dougherty, & Nylund‐Gibson, 2014). Across inner cities, the rates of gang-related gun violence vary significantly. In major U.S. cities, there are between 2.5 to 9 deaths per 1000,000 adolescents due to gang-related gun violence (Bauchner et al., 2017). From 2006-2014, the mortality rate for gun violence amongst adolescents was 8.9 out of 100,000 adolescents (AMA, 2017). During that same period, 2006-2014 the morbidity rate for gun violence amongst adolescents was 66.4 per 100,000 adolescents aged 15-29, with nonfatal firearm injury rates that were the highest amongst any age group (AMA, 2017). While the most current data available on prevalence, morbidity, and mortality of gun violence does not exclusively include incidents of gang-related gun violence amongst inner city youth, it is estimated that up to 42% of gun violence amongst adolescents is gang-related (Papachristos, 2009) and that 79% of all gun violence occurs in urban areas (CDC, 2011). Additionally, 20% of all firearm homicides in the U.S. occur in the country’s 25 largest cities, which contain around 10% of the country’s total population (National Urban League, 2016). After peaking in 1994 and sharply decreasing until 1999, gang-related gun violence amongst youth living in inner cities has stayed relatively stable over the past 20 years, with some slight increases and decreases over time (Wintemute, 2015).
Populations Affected: While adolescents of all different backgrounds may be involved in gang-related gun violence, there are populations that are more significantly affected. Adolescents of minority racial and ethnic groups are most likely to be affected by gang-related gun violence (Wintemute, 2015). African-American males are the most likely to be affected by gang-related gun violence, followed by Latin-American males (Wintemute, 2015). Adolescent females are much less likely to be involved in gang-related gun violence compared to males, making up only 14% of victims and perpetrators (CDC, 2017). Additionally, individuals of a lower socioeconomic status are significantly more likely to be involved with gangs, and subsequently in gang-related gun violence (O’Brien, Daffern, Chu, & Thomas, 2013). Lastly, education is inversely associated with gun violence (O’Brien et al., 2013). Adolescents who have high rates of truancy, drop out of school, or have low levels of education have a greater likelihood of becoming involved in gang-related gun violence, particularly if they do not complete high school or an equivalent degree (O’Brien et al., 2013).
There have been several different interventions and programs targeted at reducing gang-related gun violence amongst inner-city adolescents which have had varied levels of success. In general, the most effective interventions include community involvement.
One of the most well-known programs aimed at reducing gang-related gun violence amongst adolescents is Operation Ceasefire, developed in Boston, Massachusetts ( ). Operation Ceasefire is a problem-solving police strategy that is targeted at chronically offending gang-involved youth. Police and researchers work together in this program in order to identify causes, and to create solutions based in often untraditional approaches. The main elements of Operation Ceasefire include law-enforcement focus on illicit firearms suppliers providing guns to youth, and providing a strong deterrent to gang violence ( ). To deter gang violence, they used a “pulling levers strategy,” where in the case of violence “every lever is pulled” to take legal action against the crime ( ). Additionally, other community members including churches, probation officers, and other community groups provided services and help to gang violence to ensure a community-wide effort ( ). Braga et al. (2001) found statistically significant 50% decrease in gang-related homicides and firearm possession amongst adolescents as a result of the program.
Operation Peacekeeper, initiated in Stockton, California, is another aggressive law-enforcement strategy that was designed to reduce adolescent gang involvement and violence amongst inner city adolescents ages 10 to 18 ( ). It uses a similar “pulling levers strategy” to Operation Ceasefire, and also includes trained Youth Outreach Workers who act as mentors for youths within the community (Braga, 2008). Studies on the efficacy of this program found a significant resulting decrease in firearm related deaths (Braga et al., 2001).
Cure Violence, in Chicago, Illinois takes a community-wide public health approach, using “trained street violence interrupters” and other outreach professionals, public education campaigns, and total community mobilization to reduce gang-related gun violence amongst inner-city youth (Skogan, Hartnett, Bump, & DuBois, 2008). Cure Violence was associated with decreases firearm related deaths and gang activity within the communities it was implemented in (Skogan, Hartnett, Bump, & Dubois, 2009)
Lastly, the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission (MHRC) uses a “multilevel, multidisciplinary, and multiagency” homicide review process to reduce gang related gun violence (MHRC, 2016). Law enforcement professionals, criminal justice professionals and community service providers meet regularly to discuss the city’s homicides and other violent crimes and to identify causes and interventions from both public health and criminal justice perspectives (MHRC, 2016). The MHRC makes recommendations based on trends identified through the case review process (MHRC, 2016). Azrael, Braga, and O’Brien (2013) found that there was a statistically significant decrease in gun violence in places the program was implemented.
Gang-related gun violence amongst inner-city adolescents is a significant public health issue in the United States. This is particularly true in areas with high levels of poverty and violence, and for males of minority groups. While there has been some success in reducing this violence through adolescents, the rate of this gang-related gun violence remains one of the highest in the world. It is likely that this gang-related gun violence amongst adolescents is related to several different social, psychological, and economic factors interacting within both communities and individuals. The choice to join a gang and become involved in violence is a complex one, and may be driven by fear of victimization, desire for social support, and an attempt to increase social standing. In order to significantly reduce such violence, policymakers and law enforcement must be informed of the contributing factors.
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