US Gang Violence: Facts, Causes & History

Instructor: Millicent Kelly

Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.

This lesson will examine the topic of gang violence in the United States by looking at the facts, causes, and history surrounding this criminal problem.

The Outsiders

Have you ever heard of the movie The Outsiders? Based on the popular book by S. E. Hinton, it documents the interactions between two rival street gangs in Tulsa, Oklahoma known as the Socials and the Greasers.

After several ongoing conflicts between the two gangs, a member of the Greasers kills a member of the Socials, and the gang is forced into hiding. Although this movie is based on fictional events and characters, it is an effective portrayal of the escalating criminal conduct that is characteristic of most street gangs.

In this lesson you will learn about gang violence in the United States by understanding gangs and their history, as well as statistics and facts related to street gangs today.


The United States Department of Justice provides a very long and detailed definition of what exactly constitutes a gang, and it includes the following key points:

  • a group of three or more individuals
  • adopting a group identity with the intent to intimidate - this can be done by selecting certain colors, names, etc. that set the group apart
  • purpose is to engage in criminal activity to preserve their power
  • provides organization, rules for membership, protection, and meets on a regular basis

The History of Gangs

The first street gangs were documented in England around the 1600's, and started emerging in the United States around the end of the American Revolution. The influx of poor, European immigrants fueled gang formation. The immigrants had very few marketable skills, and many didn't even speak English. Gangs provided opportunity for financial gain by committing crimes such as burglary and robbery.

The first period of gang formation in the United States took place in New York City, as this was the entry point for immigration. Gang formation eventually spread throughout the North and Midwest, and gangs continued to become more violent.

Eventually street gangs could be found all over the country as they are today, and they continue to entice disadvantaged children, teens, and young adults by providing them with a sense of family and belonging.

Facts About Gangs


The formation of street gangs and the violence perpetuated by street gangs continues to rise and provides challenges for law enforcement. It is estimated that more than 31,000 street gangs are active within the United States with a membership that exceeds 850,000 people.

Although gangs are perceived to be a problem that is characteristic of big cities, in actuality gangs can be found in rural and suburban areas as well. The majority of gang members are between 12 and 24 years of age, with the average age being 18, and male membership far exceeding that of females.

Why Gangs Form

People tend to join gangs to experience a sense of belonging, prestige, and sometimes even protection. Gang members often live in poverty, have limited social support, and can be the victims of bullying.

Schools are often a prime meeting ground for gangs to organize and plan their activities, and many schools now have uniform rules and zero tolerance weapons policies in place to deter gang related assembly on school grounds.

Gang Violence

Street gangs take part in a variety of criminal activities including:

  • drug distribution
  • extortion
  • assault
  • burglary
  • robbery
  • weapons trafficking
  • rape
  • homicide

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