Facts About Firearm Policy Initiative

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MYTH: Gangs are responsible for most U.S. homicides

  • Researcher John Lott stated  that the U.S. has a high homicide rate compared to other developed countries because of “drug gangs.”
  • According to the National Youth Gang Survey Analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Gang Center, and Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, most gun homicides are not related to gangs.
  • A December 2020 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report by the CDC of 34 states, four California counties, and Washington, D.C., found that 9.7% of homicides in 2017 were gang-related. 

Lott’s Claim:

In his 2020 book Gun Control Myths, Lott responds to a Vox.com article by German Lopez that argues “America is an outlier when it comes to gun deaths, but not overall crime.” Lopez cites research by UC Berkeley researchers Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins as well as Duke University’s Jeffrey Swanson to support the claim that “The US appears to have more lethal violence — and that’s driven in large part by the prevalence of guns.” 

In response to Lopez, Lott claims “The United States has a relatively low violent crime rate compared to other developed countries. But compared to these other countries, the United States does have a relatively high homicide rate. Vox doesn’t consider the most obvious explanation: that the US has a bad drug gang problem.”

In Gun Control Myths, Lott extends the “drug gang problem” to include children of all ages. Lott opines, “The vast majority of these “children” are actually young adults. These are not little kids who accidentally hurt themselves by firing their parents’ gun.” Lott continues: 

”Consider these facts:

  1. 76% of these injured “children” were 17, 18, or 19 years old. 
  2. 62% of injuries were the result of criminal assaults. 
  3. The injuries are overwhelmingly concentrated in large, urban areas.

All of these deaths are clearly tragic. But they are largely a result of gang violence, a problem that won’t be solved by scaring law-abiding Americans into not owning guns.” 

Lott’s same language also appears in his 2019 testimony before a US House of Representatives subcommittee hearing and in his 2016 book The War on Guns

In a Feb. 3, 2020 op-ed published in TownHall.com, Lott writes, “The overwhelming majority of non-adult murders involving [sic] drug gangs, and nearly all of the victims are teenagers. Drug dealers are the primary source of illegal guns.”

In a Sep. 3, 2017 letter to the Des Moines Register in response to an editorial published by the paper, Lott writes, “…your editorial ignores the relationship between gangs and gun violence. The Obama administration estimated that up to 80 percent of crime in communities across the U.S. was gang-related. But there isn’t a lot of hope of stopping drug gangs from getting guns, no more than there is of ending the illegal drug trade… Unfortunately, too often gun control laws merely disarm the law-abiding. If you really want to put an end to drug gangs, you need to take away their profits. Possibly the only way to do that is to legalize drugs. There will be more drug use and accompanying problems, but there will be less gun violence.”

In a Jan. 31, 2014 post on his website, Lott says that in order to prevent child shootings, parents shouldn’t ask if neighbors have a gun before a play date. Instead, “What would make sense is asking them if they have a 17, 18, or 19 year old gang member in the house.”

In his 1998 book More Guns, Less Crime, Lott writes, “With recent estimates that up to 80 percent of U.S. crime is gang related – and that, primarily drug gang related – it is likely to be as difficult to remove guns as drugs from these gangs.”

The Facts:

Contrary to Lott’s repeated claim that the U.S. has a relatively high homicide rate because of “drug gangs,” most gun homicides are not related to gang activity. According to the National Gang Center, the government agency responsible for cataloging gang violence, there was an average of fewer than 2,000 gang homicides annually from 2007 to 2012. During roughly the same time period (2007 to 2011), the Federal Bureau of Investigation estimated an average of more than 15,500 homicides annually across the United States, indicating that gang-related homicides were approximately 13% total homicides annually. The Bureau of Justice Statistics finds the number of gang-related homicides to be even lower. In 2008, the government agency identified 960 homicides, accounting for 6% of all homicides that year. 

According to the Federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), there was a 3% increase in the number of gangs between 2010 and 2011, but gang-related homicides decreased 8% during the same period. If gang violence was truly driving the homicide rate, gang membership and gun homicide rates would move in the same direction.

A December 2020 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report of 34 states, four California counties, and Washington, D.C., found that gang-related attacks were responsible for 11.4% of male homicides and 3.6% of female homicides in 2017, for 9.7% of overall homicides. The previous year, 7.4% of all homicides were gang-related. 

A 2012 CDC study examining five cities with the largest gang problems found a total of 856 gang homicides compared to 2,077 non-gang homicides from 2003–2008. Even when examining cities with the largest gang problems, gang homicides only accounted for 29% of homicides. Contrary to Lott’s claim that the illegal drug trade is fueling US gun violence, the study also says “the proportion of gang homicides resulting from drug trade/use or with other crimes in progress was consistently low in the five cities, ranging from zero to 25 percent.”


John Lott, Gun Control Myths, 2020
German Lopez, “America’s unique gun violence problem, explained in 16 maps and charts,” Vox, Aug. 31, 2019
John Lott, The War on Guns, 2016
John Lott, “The Myth of the lack of Public Health Research on Firearms” Testimony before the Before the Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, United States House of Representatives, Mar. 7, 2019
John Lott, “Mike Bloomberg is Running Two Misleading Gun Control Ads During the Super Bowl,” Town Hall, Feb. 3, 2020
John Lott, “Gang activity plays a large role in gun-related violence,” Des Moines Register, September 3, 2017
John Lott, “UPDATE: Letter In The Des Moines Register: “Gang Activity Plays A Large Role In Gun-Related Violence,” Crime Prevention Research Center, September 3, 2017
John Lott, “ABC News’ Extremely Misleading Report On Dangers Of Guns In Homes: Instead Of Asking Neighbors If They Own Guns, Ask Them If A Gang Member Lives There,” Crime Prevention Research Center, January 31, 2014
John Lott, More Guns, Less Crime, 1999
Evan DeFillippis and Devin Hughes, “Do We Have a Gang Problem or a Gun Problem?,” Huffington Post, June 3, 2014
Arlen Egley, Jr. and James C. Howell, “Highlights of the 2011 National Youth Gang Survey,” OJJDP Juvenile Justice Fact Sheet, Sep. 2013
Emiko Petrosky, et al., “Surveillance for Violent Deaths — National Violent Death Reporting System, 34 States, Four California Counties, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, 2017,” Surveillance Summaries, Dec. 4, 2020
Allison Ertl, et al., “Surveillance for Violent Deaths — National Violent Death Reporting System, 32 States, 2016,” Surveillance Summaries, Oct. 4, 2019
Arlen Egley Jr., et al., “Gang Homicides — Five U.S. Cities, 2003–2008,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Jan. 27, 2012
Alexia Cooper and Erica Smith, “Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008,” Bureau of Justice Statistics: Patterns and Trends, Nov. 2012
National Gang Center, “Measuring the Extent of Gang Problems,” National Youth Gang Survey Analysis (accessed Jan. 6, 2020)
Centers for Disease Control (U.S.), & Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (U.S.). Surveillance for Violent Deaths — National Violent Death Reporting System, 34 States, Four California Counties, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, 2017,”Morbidity and mortality weekly report: MMWR, Surveillance Summaries, Atlanta, Ga.: U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare, Public Health Service, Center for Disease Control, December 4, 2020, 69(8); Table 5.

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