Worldwide facts and statistics on gangs and guns
They are often angry, young and male, and with a gun in their hand they are feared by society. The firearm may provide a sense of empowerment, perhaps as a remedy to feeling powerless in a society where they have become marginalised, but it is almost a talisman to many gang members who wield them.
Those who do engage in armed violence are often in gangs, which provides camaraderie and security. But it is a false sense of security when tensions run high when they face a rival gang, facing the possibility of gangland slayings like the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, to drive-by shootings in L.A.
Young men are the perpetrators and victims of gun crime. Young men, those aged 15 to 29, account for half of global firearm homicide victims, or 70,000 to 100,000 deaths annually. They live by the gun and they die by the gun.
Estimating gangs’ guns
But how many guns are owned by gangs? Alas the answer is not a simple one. Like with calculating military, law enforcement and civilian stockpiles, we have to rely on estimates. Estimates for global gang guns are based on the number of global gang members, however estimating the number of gang members is a task within itself since the meaning of ‘gang membership’ is controversial. There is little academic consensus over the definition.
The Small Arms Survey gathered estimates of overall gang membership in 18 areas around the world which experiences the most serious gang problems.
In the United States, which has the most comprehensive data on gangs, the 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment suggests that there are approximately 1.4 million active street, prison and outlaw motorcycle gang members, comprising of more than 33,000 gangs in the country alone.
(Although the assessment also classified Juggalos, fans of U.S. hip hop group Insane Clown Posse associated with face paints and magnets, as a ‘hybrid gang’. This decision was subject to ridicule.)
Using the estimates for the 18 areas that suffer severe gang problems, the Survey estimates that there are between 2-10 million gang members around the world, and that there is no evidence to suggest that global gang membership is higher than 10 million.
This is a very small percentage of the world’s population, but their impact on countries – victims, the victims’ families, the health services, the economy and the justice system – is huge. The more information we have on gang numbers, the better understanding we have about how they are organised and their common goals in the hopes of preventing more armed violence. Unfortunately, the reliance on estimates and the lack of comprehensive data on gangs around the world hinders this process.
The next step is to work out the number of guns per gang member, but rates of gang gun ownership vary from gang to gang, country to country. According to the Survey, the best guide is to examine how rare or common guns are in a particular society.
For example, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime holds that homicides in the Americas are more than three and a half times as likely to be perpetrated with a firearm in Europe (74 per cent versus 21 per cent), whereas sharp objects are more than twice as likely to be murder weapons in Europe than in the Americas. This difference could be due to the accessibility of guns, or it may reflect differences in cultural norms about firearm use.
To convey a sense of the highest rates of gang gun ownership, the Small Arms Survey presumes a rate of four times the rate of overall civilian ownership. Therefore, applying this rate to the 18 countries examined by the Survey, gangs in the best-understood countries and regions own between 1.1 and 1.4 million firearms. The Survey concludes that “there probably are at least two million and probably no more than ten million gang firearms in the world.”
Without exact estimates of guns held by gangs, it is difficult to determine how much of a threat they pose to law enforcements. For example, a police helicopter was shot down over the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, two weeks after the city won the bid to host the 2016 Olympics, fuelling concerns over the extent of gang arsenals.
The arms race: criminals and gangs versus the police
With more gangs equipping themselves with more powerful weapons, so do the police – or vice versa – and what we get is essentially an arms race.
“I remember when it was sufficient for a police officer to carry a six-shooter,” said Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn in January 2013. “What I’ve seen over these decades is an increasing arms race between the police and the criminal community. And that’s been exacerbated by the presence of high-capacity, high-quality firearms and military-grade assault weapons.”
In 1986, Miami, two FBI special agents were killed in a shootout. The agents were armed with six-shot Smith & Wessons; one of the suspects had a Ruger Mini-14. They were ‘outgunned’ in the words of Lieutenant Rutherford, the firing-range director with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. It was soon realised police departments needed a better gun. In the spring of 1986, a patrolman in Colby, Kansas, read an article about the Glock and suggested that the police department should order a few. Colby subsequently made the first formal US police acquisition of Locks. The Miami police department soon acquired Glocks, the first big-city department to do so, ordering 1100 guns. Dallas, San Francisco and Toronto followed.
In March 2009, four police officers were killed by a man with an assault rifle. The shooting was the deadliest attack on California law enforcement since 1970. The following month, three Pittsburgh officers were killed by Richard Poplawski, armed with an assault rifle and two other guns. As the Small Arms Survey notes, “Relatively unusual framing incidents, seen as warnings rather than exceptions, have dramatic effects”.
Soon after, there were reports of local police forces expanding their automatic weapons inventories. On 30th April, Detroit Police Department placed an order for 5,000 Smith & Wesson M&P40 polymer pistols and 350 M&P15 tactical rifles.
In late 2013, it was reported that Boston police were planning to train 99 patrol officers to use semiautomatic rifles, “a dramatic boost in firepower that some officials say is excessive”.
According to the Boston Globe, the need for more powerful weapons was ‘reinforced’ when the Boston marathon terrorist attacks occurred. Critical of the decision, president of the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation Jack Kervin said: “It’s almost like we’re moving away from being community policing officers to being Navy SEALs.”
In Florida, it was reported that police officers can be certified in carrying semiautomatic AR-15 rifle, “the civilian version of the military’s M-16 used by U.S. soldiers in Iraq.”
Across the world, other police forces have added to their weapons arsenal. In the wake of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, Mumbai police promised to “arm itself with the equipment it needed to evolve into a credible counter-terrorism force”.
In Australia, there have been calls for Queensland police to be better equipped to tackle ‘bikies’, criminal motorcycle gangs. Queensland Police Union (QPU) president Ian Leavers said that frontline officers need more than glock pistols and Tasers if they are to rid Queensland of criminal bikie gangs.
How do gangs get their weapons in the first place?
There are numerous ways in which gangs can acquire guns – illegal purchases, straw purchases, using middlemen to obtain firearms. Then there’s theft from individuals to commercial establishments to law enforcement agencies (e.g. 27 AK-47s were stolen from a Fort Irwin warehouse in 2007).
In America, according to the 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment, gangs are becoming more sophisticated and methodical in obtaining guns. There have been reports of enlisted military personnel being utilized by gangs. In November 2010, four U.S. Marines were arrested for selling military assault weapons to gangs operating in L.A.
Despite its strict gun control laws (with just one legal gun store in the entire country, located in Mexico City and controlled by the military), gang members in Mexico can easily access firearms from America. One Mexican cartel leader claimed his gang bought all its guns from the U.S.
According to a US Senate Report submitted by Senators Feinstein, Schumer and Whitehouse, it found that firearms recovered in Mexico overwhelmingly come from the Southwest border: “The Government Accountability Office found that between Fiscal Year
2004 and 2008, approximately 70 percent of firearms traced in Mexico to an original owner in the United States came from Texas (39 percent), California (20 percent), and Arizona (10 percent)”.
What perhaps made matters worse was the botched sting operation ‘Fast and Furious’ by the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The US authorities lost track of 1,400 firearms that they were hoping would lead them to drug leaders, but the guns ended up arming Mexican gangs such as the Sinaloa cartel.
One of the lost guns was found at the scene of a gunfight between a Mexican drug cartel and soldiers where a beauty queen died.
For the love of gangs and guns
Where money is no object, it has been known for gang leaders to possess gold-plated firearms. Mexican drug cartel leader Ramiro Pozos Gonzalez, of the La Resistencia gang, is particularly guilty of this, who had a gold-plated AK-47 rifle, complete with gold-plated magazines and bullets tipped with gold. In January 2013, a gold-plated AK-47 rifle, thought to belong to Mexican cartel the Zetas, encrusted with diamonds and emeralds was seized by Honduran police.
Last year, ten reputed 18th Street gang leaders were charged with gun trafficking, with a gold-plated AK-47 sold to undercover agents.
And then you have gang initiations, which can involve killing a police officer, a rival gang member or just an innocent bystander. In 2009, there was an attempted assassination of a South Carolina deputy sheriff by three young men, two identified as members of the Surenos gang (or SUR-13). The following year, a 16-year-old boy was charged with murder for the shooting and killing of a 19-year-old. Detectives believed it was an initiation into the Bloods gang.
And then there’s the gang joining traditions, which can go disastrously wrong. Even in the case of the Freemasons in New York. William James was accidentally shot through the head when a lodge member, 76-year-old World War II veteran and Mason, Albert Eid, used a real gun instead of a blank pistol by mistake. According to the New York Times, two tin cans were placed on a shelf by his head. With the aim to frighten the new recruit, the idea was for Mr Eid to fire two blank rounds, and a man standing behind Mr James would knock the cans down with a stick.
As for the Japanese Yakuza gang, one way in which a member has to atone for a mistake is to sever the little finger at the joint. The ritual is ‘yubitsume’, translated as ‘finger-shortening’. The ritual is associated with swordsmanship, where the self-amputation diminishes the person’s ability to handle a sword, but in modern times, it has been reported that the self-amputation makes handling firearms more difficult, leaving the offender more vulnerable. The severed joint is then presented to the boss.
The Mafia has a strong tradition in carrying out horrific shootings, leaving behind messages. In 1980, Antonio ‘Tony Bananas’ Caponigro ordered the killing of Angelo Bruno, Mafia boss of Philadelphia. Caponigro was subsequently shot 14 times with $20 dollar bills stuffed into his orifices, symbolising greed. Another symbolic murder was that of Bruno Facciolo, who was shot to death, and a canary was stuffed into his mouth.
Research by Jenna Corderoy.
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