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Gang violence is less related to drugs than thought, CDC says

January 26, 2012 |  9:33 am

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Gang homicides are less likely to be drug-related than many people think -- and more likely to be the result of factors such as retaliation to ongoing gang violence, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday. The report is from the first such study based on the agency’s National Violent Death Reporting System.

Using data from 2003 through 2008, the analysis looked at gang-related killings and other homicides in large cities in 17 states and found the highest level of gang homicides in five cities. Three were in California -- Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland; the other two were Oklahoma City, Okla., and Newark, N.J.

The finding that drugs played less of a role than previously thought by the public could be important for policymakers, because it could shift the focus in how society attempts to prevent gang deaths.

“Violence -- including gang homicides -- is a significant public health problem,” Linda C. Degutis, director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, said in a prepared statement. “Investing in early prevention pays off in the long run. It helps youth learn how to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence and keeps them connected to their families, schools and communities, and from joining gangs in the first place.”

The report, published in the CDC’s current Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, is based on the National Violent Death Reporting System. The state-based surveillance system collects violent death data from multiple sources, such as death certificates, coroner and medical examiner records, and various law enforcement reports.

The data focused on five cities that met the criteria of having a high prevalence of gang homicides. According to the report, the cities had 856 gang-related homicides and 2,077 non-gang homicides.

“This report highlights the importance of a system like NVDRS,” Howard Spivak, director of the CDC’s Division of Violence Prevention, stated. “The system’s unique ability to provide a comprehensive picture of the circumstances surrounding violent death can help identify prevention opportunities and approaches for populations and communities most at risk.”

According to the report, drugs play a relatively minor role in homicides. In Los Angeles and Long Beach, less than 5% of all homicides were associated with known drug trade or use. In Oakland, 12.5% of gang homicides, compared with 16.5% of non-gang homicides, involved drug trade or use. In Oklahoma City, 25.4% of gang homicides, compared with 22.8% of non-gang homicides, involved drugs. Newark was the only city with a significantly higher proportion of drug involvement in gang homicides, at 20% compared with non-gang homicides at 6%.

Comparing gang-related homicides to homicides outside of gangs showed that gang homicide victims were younger than non-gang homicide victims. Gang victims ranged from 15 to 19 years old. Approximately 80% of all homicide victims were male, but Los Angeles, Newark and Oklahoma City reported significantly higher proportions of male victims in gang homicides than in non-gang incidents.

Firearms were the weapons of choice in gang-related homicides. Between 92% to 96% of gang homicide incidents involved a firearm, compared with 57% to 86% in non-gang related homicides. Drive-by shootings were more likely to contribute to gang homicides than other types of homicide in Los Angeles and Oklahoma City; about a quarter of gang homicides in each city were from drive-by shootings, according to the report.

Less than 6% of the victims of all homicides were bystanders.

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-- Michael Muskal

Photo: Crews last week investigate the scene of what is believed to be a  gang-related shooting that claimed two lives in New Jersey.  The CDC has examined gang-related and non-gang-related homicides in a report released Thursday. Credit: Vernon Ogrodnek / Press of Atlantic City

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