Gang-related deaths typically aren't the product of fights over drugs - as many assume - but rather result from grudges between rival gangs that erupt into violence, according to a new study from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Gang homicides nearly always involve guns, usually occur in public places and the victims tend to be under the age of 19, the agency reported on in a study that examined 2003-2008 data from Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland, California; Oklahoma City; and Newark, New Jersey.
"These incidents most often result when contentious gang members pass each other in public places and a conflict quickly escalates into homicide with the use of firearms and drive-by shootings," the CDC said.
In the cities studied, the percentage of gang killings that were drug-related ranged from zero in Long Beach to about 25% in Oklahoma City.
Only in Newark did the number of drug killings related to gangs significantly exceed those involving non-gang members.
"A possible explanation of this divergent finding could be that Newark is experiencing homicides by gangs formed specifically for drug trade," the CDC said the study, published online in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Nationwide, homicide is the second leading cause of death among those aged 15-24, the CDC said. In Los Angeles and Long Beach, gang killings account for the majority of homicides in that age group.
Victims of gang violence tend to be young, the study showed. Those aged 15-19 accounted for between 27% and 42% of gang-related homicide victims in the five cities studied, compared to a range of 9% to 14% for non-gang murders.
The study also found that in Los Angeles and Oklahoma City, nearly a fourth of gang killings occurred in drive-by shootings. In all five cities, more than 90% of the killings involved firearms, and the killings were more likely to occur in public than non-gang deaths.
This suggests that "gang homicides are quick, retaliatory reactions to ongoing gang-related conflict," the CDC said.
The findings highlight the need to deter gang involvement early in adolescence and to teach young people to resolve conflict non-violently, the agency said.
"These homicides are preventable," said CDC epidemic intelligence service officer Dawn McDaniel. "We need programs targeted at adolescents before they reach the ages of 15-19 to prevent them from joining gangs and being put at risk for gang violence in the first place."
(Reuters Health, David Beasley, January 2012)