THE BLOG

Do We Have a Gang Problem or a Gun Problem?

04/03/2014 01:40 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2014

Co-authored with Devin Hughes

In a scathing critique of ABC's recent report "Young Guns," Dana Loesch stated that most gun deaths were the result of gang violence; therefore, America has a gang problem, not a gun problem. Her claim appears to be supported by sites positing that "a staggering 80 percent of gun homicides are gang-related." As it turns out though, not only is her statement factually incorrect, as the majority of gun deaths are suicides, but there is not a shred of evidence to support her characterization that gangs are the driving force behind firearm violence.

Unfortunately, Dana Loesch's sentiment is shared by many gun advocates, including the Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, who, when opposing firearm background checks said, "President Obama should be as committed to dealing with the gang problem that is tormenting honest people in his hometown as he is to blaming law-abiding gun owners for the acts of psychopathic murderers."

So, do we have a gang problem or a gun problem? Data collected by the National Gang Center, the government agency responsible for cataloging gang violence, makes clear that it's the latter. There were 1,824 gang-related killings in 2011. This total includes deaths by means other than a gun. The Bureau of Justice Statistics finds this number to be even lower, identifying a little more than 1,000 gang-related homicides in 2008. In comparison, there were 11,101 homicides and 19,766 suicides committed with firearms in 2011.

According to the Federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), the number of gangs and gang members has been on the rise for some time now, increasing by more than one-third in the past decade. Between 2010 and 2011, for example, there was a 3 percent increase in the number of gangs, but an 8 percent decrease in gang-related homicides. If gang violence was truly driving the gun homicide rate, we should not see gang membership and gun homicide rates moving in opposite directions.

The most recent Centers for Disease Control study on this subject lends further credence to our claim. It examined five cities that met the criterion for having a high prevalence of gang homicides: Los Angeles, California; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Long Beach, California; Oakland, California; and Newark, New Jersey. In these cities, a total of 856 gang and 2,077 non-gang homicides were identified and included in the analyses. So, even when examining cities with the largest gang problems, gang homicides only accounted for 29 percent of the total for the period under consideration (2003-2008). For the nation as a whole it would be much smaller.

The 80 percent of gang-related gun homicides figure purporting to support Loesch's claim, then, is not only false, but off by nearly a factor of five. The direct opposite is necessarily true: more than 80 percent of gun homicides are non-gang related. While gang violence is still a serious problem that needs to be addressed, it is disingenuous to assert that the vast majority of our gun problem (even excluding suicides) is caused by gangs.

In spite of this, LaPierre's proposed solution to gun violence is to "contact every U.S. Attorney and ask them to bring at least 10 cases per month against drug dealers, gang members and other violent felons caught illegally possessing firearms."

That same CDC study, however, also refutes LaPierre's claim that the drug trade is fueling gun-violence, saying, "the proportion of gang homicides resulting from drug trade/use or with other crimes in progress was consistently low in the five cities, ranging from zero to 25 percent."

Furthermore, a 2005 study done by Cook, Ludwig and Braga found that nearly three in five homicide offenders in Illinois in 2001 did not have a felony conviction within the 10 years prior to the homicide. Looking at just violent felons excludes a huge subset of potential criminals that become violent in the presence of a firearm.

Gun advocates' blind focus on gangs, drugs and violent felons overlooks the larger gun problem facing America. It is irresponsible and disingenuous for some of us to brush off our staggering death toll from firearms merely as the product of gangs or even violent criminals. Recognizing America's high homicide rate for what it is -- a gun problem -- is the first step in solving it.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.