Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Gun Violence Among Serious Young Offenders

Guide No.23 (2003)

by Anthony A. Braga

The Problem of Gun Violence Among Serious Young Offenders

This guide addresses serious youth gun violence, describing the problem and reviewing factors that increase the risks of it. It then identifies a series of questions that might help you analyze your local problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem, and what is known about them from evaluative research and police practice.

Criminal misuse of guns kills or injures tens of thousands of Americans every year. This violence imposes a heavy burden on our standard of living, not only on groups that have the highest victimization rates, but also on the community at large. By one estimate, this burden amounts to $80 billion per year. 1 Although overall U.S. homicide rates declined between the 1980s and 1990s, youth homicide, particularly gun homicide, increased dramatically. Between 1984 and 1994, juvenile (younger than 18) homicides committed with handguns increased by 418 percent, and juvenile homicides committed with other guns increased by 125 percent.2 During this time, adolescents (ages 14 to 17) had the largest proportional increase in homicide commission and victimization, young adults (ages 18 to 24) had the largest absolute increase, and there was much crossfire between the two age groups.3 Gun homicide accounted for all of the increase in youth homicide. The youth violence epidemic peaked in 1993 and was followed by a rapid, sustained drop over the rest of the 1990s.4 However, in 2000, more than 10,000 Americans were killed with guns, and guns are much more likely to be used in homicides of teens and young adults than in homicides of people of other ages.5

In urban areas, gun violence takes a particularly heavy toll, as vastly disproportionate numbers of young minority males are killed and injured, and increasing fear drives out businesses and disrupts community social life. Research has linked urban youth gun violence to gang conflicts, street drug markets, and gun availability.6 Youth gun violence is usually concentrated among groups of serious offenders and in very specific places.7

The police can prevent youth gun violence by focusing on identifiable risks. While gun violence seems to pervade our society, it is remarkably clustered among high-risk people, in high-risk places, at high-risk times. This concentration of violence provides an important opportunity for police to strategically address a seemingly intractable problem.

Related Problems

For police agencies, the most pressing concerns regarding youth gun violence are why offenders target particular people, at particular places, at particular times. However, it is also important to recognize that youth gun violence is often linked to a variety of risk factors beyond the scope of problem-oriented policing. For example, it has been linked to changing demographics, adverse economic conditions, family disruption, media violence, and poor parenting skills.8 These are sometimes considered the “root causes” of the problem. However, by the time gun violence problems come to police attention, the broader questions of why youth offend are no longer relevant. While police often help people access social services, they are best positioned to prevent youth gun crimes by focusing on the situational opportunities for offending rather than trying to change those socioeconomic conditions on which other government agencies primarily focus. Thinking about how likely offenders, potential victims, and others are to make decisions based on perceived opportunities is more useful in designing effective problem-oriented policing interventions.9

Youth gun violence is only one of many youth-related problems police must handle. The following require separate analysis and response:

  • gang formation,
  • gang intimidation,
  • gang crime,
  • youth drug dealing,
  • youth drug use,
  • underage drinking,
  • gun availability to youth,
  • gun possession by youth,
  • illegal gun markets,
  • street drug markets,
  • disorderly youth in public places,
  • assaults in and around bars,
  • street cruising, and
  • truancy.

Factors Contributing to Gun Violence Among Serious Young Offenders

Understanding the factors that contribute to your youth gun violence problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses. Research has shown that crime problems tend to cluster among a few offenders, victims, and places. Youth gun violence is similarly concentrated among a few offenders in a few places. This section reviews what is known from criminal profiles of youth gun offenders and victims, addresses the importance of gangs and criminally active groups in youth gun violence, and discusses the clustering in location and time of youth gun violence. It is important to note that the problem frames vary across the studies described below. In many jurisdictions, an initial interest in “juvenile violence” or “gun violence” shifted, as the problem assessments proceeded, to a focus on understanding and controlling violence, regardless of age or weapon type. However, in all cities, youth gun violence was the most important component of the problem. For example, in Minneapolis, problem-oriented research conducted on an emergent total homicide problem found that homicide was largely committed by youth ages 24 and under, who used guns and were known to the criminal justice system.10

Previous Offenses

Youth gun violence is concentrated among serious offenders well known to police and other criminal justice agencies. In Boston, an interagency group of law enforcement personnel, youth workers, and researchers examined the criminal histories of youth ages 21 and under killed by gun or knife in the city between 1990 and 1994, and of the youth offenders responsible.11 Of the victims, 75 percent had been arraigned for at least one offense in Massachusetts courts, and 20 percent had served time in a youth or adult detention center. Nearly 50 percent had been on probation in the past, and many were on probation when they were killed. Of the offenders, a little over 75 percent had been arraigned for at least one offense in Massachusetts courts, 25 percent had served time, over 50 percent had been on probation in the past, and 25 percent were on probation when they committed the crime. Victims and offenders known to the criminal justice system had an average of nearly 10 prior arraignments, and nearly 50 percent had 10 or more arraignments. They had been arraigned for a wide variety of crimes, including armed violent offenses, disorder offenses, and drug offenses. In gang literature, this wide range of offending is described as “cafeteria-style” offending.12

A number of other jurisdictions have reported similar findings. In Minneapolis, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and Stockton, Calif., gun violence was largely committed by and against youth with extensive criminal backgrounds.13

Gangs and Criminally Active Groups

Youth gun violence is concentrated among feuding gangs and criminally active groups. The Boston interagency group examined the circumstances of the youth gun and knife murders and found that nearly two-thirds were gang-related.14 Most of the murders were not linked to drug dealing or other “business” interests; instead, most resulted from relatively long-standing gang feuds. In Minneapolis, nearly two-thirds of youth murders between 1994 and 1997 were gang-related.15 In the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles, slightly less than two-thirds of youth gun homicides were gang-related. Another 25 percent involved gang members as victims or offenders, but were motivated for reasons other than gang rivalries.16

Even in neighborhoods suffering from high rates of youth gun violence, most youth are not in gangs and criminally active groups. In addition, some gangs are more dangerous than others. To better understand the city’s gang problem, the Boston interagency group mapped gang turf and estimated gang size.17 They identified 61 different crews with around 1,300 members. Gang members represented less than 1 percent of all Boston youth, and less than 3 percent of youth in high-risk neighborhoods. The mapping also documented rivalries and alliances among gangs. Gangs had identifiable “beefs” with particular rival gangs, not all rivalries were active (i.e., shots were not currently being fired), and certain gangs were much more involved in conflicts than others. In Minneapolis, researchers identified some 2,650 people in 32 active street gangs as being central to youth gun violence; they represented less than 3.5 percent of Minneapolis residents between the ages of 14 and 24. The gangs tended not to be territorial; they operated fluidly across Minneapolis and nearby jurisdictions. In Boyle Heights, researchers identified 37 criminally active street gangs as being involved in youth gun violence.

However, gangs are not always behind youth gun violence. In some cities, criminally active groups who are not considered “gangs” are major gun offenders. In Baltimore, violent groups active in street drug markets were involved in numerous homicides in 1997.18 Most of the murders occurred in or near a street drug market, and many victims and suspects were part of a drug organization or a recognized neighborhood criminal network. Researchers identified 325 drug groups that ranged in nature from rather sophisticated organizations, to structured neighborhood groups, to loose neighborhood groups. While drug disputes and street drug robberies contributed to Baltimore’s gun violence problem, homicides often resulted from ongoing, non-drug-related disputes among people in drug-selling groups.

In thinking about the nature of your youth gun violence problem, it is important to recognize that the direct links between youth gangs, drugs, and violence are usually overstated.19 Even in Baltimore, where most youth gun violence occurs in a drug market setting, most youth gun homicide is not drug-related. Gang and group violence is usually retaliatory or expressive (defending gang honor, status, and members). Today’s offenders are often tomorrow’s victims, and vice versa. Youth gun violence victims treated in Boston emergency rooms often had scars from past gun and knife wounds.20 Youth gun violence in many cities appears to be a self-sustaining cycle among a relatively small number of criminally active youth. They are at high risk of being confronted by gun violence, so they tend to try to protect themselves by getting, carrying, and using guns; forming and joining gangs; acting tough; and so forth.21 This behavior adds to the cycle of street violence.

The research confirms a high degree of overlap between victim and offender populations. It is important that you determine whether this overlap exists in your jurisdiction.

Geographic and Temporal Distribution

Like most crime problems, youth gun violence is clustered in specific places. Between 1987 and 1990, half of Chicago’s gang-related homicides occurred in only 10 of its 77 communities.22 In Minneapolis, nearly two-thirds of homicides were clustered in only eight of its 95 neighborhoods. In Boston, gang turf covered only 3 percent of the city’s total area, but over 25 percent of the city’s youth homicides, gun assaults, weapons offenses, and shots-fired calls for service occurred there. In Boyle Heights, spatial analyses revealed that youth gun homicide was concentrated in specific hot spots, in and around gang hangouts. Most of the Boyle Heights youth gun homicides were considered to be predatory, as perpetrators invaded rival gang territory to commit them. 23

Youth gun violence often clusters in time. For example, in Boston, most youth gun violence occurred in the afternoon hours immediately following school release, as well as during weekend evenings. In Kansas City, Mo., computer analysis of gun crime hot spots within a beat revealed that most gun violence occurred between 7 p.m. and 1 a.m.24