2018 POP Conference
November 5–7, 2018
Providence, Rhode Island

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Factors Contributing to Drive–by Shootings

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

Gang Membership

† Police departments use different thresholds in determining whether an event is “gang–related.” The Los Angeles Police Department applies the label if the victim or offender is a known gang member. In Chicago, however, the event must exhibit a gang–related motive such as retaliation, initiation, or turf defense. Mere membership is not sufficient for the “gang–related” classification (Rosenfeld, Bray, and Egley 1999; Block and Block 1993 [PDF]).

Although gang membership is certainly not a prerequisite to being involved in a drive–by shooting, studies have shown that larger proportions of gang members reported being involved in drive–by shootings than at–risk youth who were not gang–involved.7 While approximately equal proportions of males and females reported taking part in drive–by shootings, females were less likely to admit to having actually shot anyone, which suggests that their role in the event may have been minor or secondary.

Gang membership may facilitate involvement in drive–by shootings by placing members in risky situations–ones in which guns are present and behavioral norms often include violence.8 Gang members are more likely than nongang members to own guns for protection, are more likely to have friends who own guns for protection, and are more likely to carry guns when outside the home.9 Further, while not all gang members engage in drive–by shootings, those who do are often attracted by the opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty and enhance their group status.10


Depending on whether the drive–by shooting is gang–related or not, motivations differ. Those that are gang–involved tend to be motivated by mutual antagonism with rival gang members, disputes over territory or turf, a desire to show fearlessness or loyalty to the group, an effort to promote one’s social status or self–image, or retaliation against real or perceived disrespect or insults.11 The desire for excitement can provide momentum for the event, making the participants restless and unruly.12 Sometimes, those involved in drive–by shootings use drugs and alcohol to rationalize their actions.

Disputes among drug dealers may also provide the motivation for drive–by shootings. Gang members and those involved in drug enterprises tend not to rely on the formal criminal justice system to resolve their disputes. Instead, they respond with their own forms of justice, often violent, to punish others for perceived wrongs and to deter future aggression.13 Drive–by shootings are one way in which gang members and other street criminals exact revenge and enhance their status. These conflicts build and retaliation tends to lead to counter–retaliation, with each side believing they are acting in self–defense.14

Drive–by shootings that are not gang– or drug–motivated tend to occur in reaction to disputes among neighbors or acquaintances, or as an escalation of altercations that may have begun in a bar, restaurant, or nightclub. Obviously, not all disputes or tensions escalate to the point of violence, and research has not yet demonstrated what distinguishes those events that do from those that do not. At the most basic level, the aggressors must have access to both a vehicle and a gun, but beyond that, these events appear to be rather unpredictable. Newspapers are replete with accounts of incidents with unclear motivations involving shots fired from a vehicle at another vehicle, stationary target, person, or group of people.

Drive–by shootings that occur as an extreme form of road rage often occur in reaction to seemingly trivial events (e.g., another driver is driving “too slow,” won’t let another driver pass, is tailgating, fails to signal before turning). While triggered by these events, the underlying motivation usually appears to be a series of unrelated stressors in the perpetrator’s life.15 The protection, anonymity, sense of power, and ease of escape provided by the vehicle lead some motorists to feel safe expressing their hostility toward other drivers.16

Vehicle and Gun Availability

A drive–by shooting’s prerequisites include access to a vehicle and a gun. Those who carry out drive–by shootings may use their own vehicle or one that has been borrowed, rented, or stolen. Because many drive–by shootings occur at night, dependable descriptions of the vehicle involved may be difficult to obtain.

When gun ownership is more prevalent, the risk of drive–by shootings increases as well. Although both juveniles and adults participate in them, most research on drive–by shootings has focused on the prevalence of gun ownership among adolescents. Substantial numbers of adolescents have owned guns at some point in their lives, although their ownership tends to be sporadic.17 In recent years, as gun possession among juveniles has become more widespread, the threshold for using guns to resolve conflicts appears to have lowered.18 Surveys of juvenile offenders have shown that over half obtained their first gun without a specific plan to do so; rather, they reported finding the gun or said a peer, sibling, or other relative gave it to them to use for self–protection.19 Those who carry guns for protection may be resistant to voluntarily forfeiting their weapons, as they fear harm from peers or rival gang members more than they fear legal sanctions.20

It is not so much the number of guns in circulation, but rather the number of people carrying them in high–risk places and at high–risk times that creates the potential for a drive–by shooting.21 Further, the number of events in which guns are actually used is only a fraction of the times in which guns are present.22 As a result, it is important to know the times and places in which guns are present, and the factors that contribute to their use.

Times and Locations

Many drive–by shootings occur under the cover of darkness, either to help the shooters avoid detection or because the precipitating events occur at night.23 Gang members tend to target rival groups at parties or lingering on the street. Not only do these people have little time to react, but also the offenders can boast about carrying out the shooting when they were vastly outnumbered.24

Wide open streets are often chosen as the preferred venue because they allow the shooters to approach without detection and to escape unhindered. Proximity to major roadways may facilitate access to and from the shooting location.25 Targets may include people on the street, those in vehicles that are stopped at a light or parked, and those who are inside their homes.26 Drive–by shootings that occur as an extreme form of road rage appear to be rather unpredictable in terms of the times and locations where they occur. Understanding Your Local Problem

The information provided above is only a generalized description of drive–by shootings. You must combine these basic facts with a more specific understanding of your local problem. Analyzing the local problem carefully will help you design a more effective response strategy.