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Although once thought to be an inner-city problem, gang violence has spread to communities throughout the United States.

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Although once thought to be an inner-city problem, gang violence has spread to communities throughout the United States.  At last count, there were more than 24,500 different youth gangs around the country, and more than 772,500 teens and young adults were members of gangs.  Youth gangs are responsible for much of the serious violence in the United States.  In schools and neighborhoods where they are active, they create a climate of fear and increase the amount of violence and criminal behavior.

What is a gang?

A gang is a group of teens and young adults that hang out together and are involved in joint violent, illegal, or criminal activity.  They generally give themselves a common name or symbol, and they often choose to wear a certain type of clothing or to display some other identifying item.

Gang members are responsible for much of the serious violence in the United States. Teens that are gang members are much more likely than other teens to commit serious and violent crimes.  For example, a survey in Denver found that while only 14% of teens were gang members, they were responsible for committing 89% of the serious violent crimes. Joining a gang is dangerous.  Violent conflict between gangs is common, and gang members are at least 60 times more likely to be killed than the rest of the population.

Gang violence has become increasingly deadly over the last few decades.  Some people have blamed this change on gangs’ growing participation in the drug trade and “drug wars”.  That does not appear to be the primary reason for the dramatic increase in gang violence and homicides, however.  Instead, researchers believe that gang violence has become more dangerous because of the increasing availability of more lethal weapons and the growing use of cars in drive-by attacks on other gangs.

Is gang membership on the rise?

There has been a dramatic increase in gang activity in the United States since the 1970’s.  In the 1970’s, gangs were active in less than half the states, but now every state reports youth gang activity.  And, while many people think of gangs as just an inner-city problem, that is clearly no longer the case.  In the past few decades we have seen a dramatic increase in the growth of gang problems in smaller cities, towns, and rural areas. Since 1996, the overall number of gangs and gang members in the United States has decreased.  However, in cities with a population over 25,000, gang involvement still remains near peak levels.

How old are most gang members? 

Although some gang members are as young as 12, the average age is about 17 to 18 years.  Not many people realize that around half of youth gang members are 18 or older.  These older members are much more likely to be involved in serious and violent crimes than younger members.  Only about 1 in 4 gang members are ages 15 to 17.  For most teens, gang membership is a brief phase.  One-half to two-thirds of teen gang members leave the gang by the end of their first year.

Do many girls join gangs? 

Male teens are much more likely to join gangs than female teens.  Police reports indicate that only about 6% of gang members are female and that 39% of gangs have some female members.  These estimates are probably low, however.  One 11-city survey of eighth-graders found that 38% of gang members were female. 
Female gang members are less likely to be involved in criminal behavior than males, but they are still an important concern.  In one survey, 78% of female gang members reported being involved in gang fights, 65% reported carrying a weapon for protection, and 39% reported attacking someone with a weapon.

Why do teens join gangs?

Teens join gangs for a variety of reasons.  Some are seeking excitement; others are looking for prestige, protection, a chance to make money, or a sense of belonging.  Few teens are forced to join gangs; in most cases, teens can refuse to join without fear of retaliation.

Source: Center for Disease Control (CDC) - National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center