Gang problem complex but far from hopeless |

Gang problem complex but far from hopeless

Lisa Keating

The recent murder of a young man at the hands of gang members has brought to light the gang problem in our town. People are discussing how our city might deal with this growing problem. Others are struggling to understand why people join gangs in the first place and why a city like Carson City would even have gangs.

Here are some frightening statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice. Gang membership rose 345 percent between 1980 and 1992 to approximately 650,000 gang members in the United States. Fifty-seven percent of all American cities now have gang problems and “gangs are no longer a big-city problem” as they have spread to cities of all sizes.

Gang members typically commit many more crimes than other criminals, often violent crimes. One large scale study found that gang members had each committed 42 serious offenses in the last six months and on average sold drugs 53 times in the past six months. And, as we have seen in recent weeks, innocent bystanders can become the victims.

It is hard to understand why someone would want to be in a gang. In a study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, researchers found three common factors involved in whether someone joined a gang or not. First, is exposure. If a youth lives in a neighborhood with gangs they are more likely to join. Impoverished areas where minority groups reside and feel disenfranchised are at risk for gang activity. It is thought that the feelings of hopelessness and anger that arise from living in these areas can lead to formation of gangs. Gangs help these youth feel empowered and can provide money and independence through illegal activities such as selling drugs.

Second, are severe family problems. If kids or teens have severe family problems such as violence and drug use they are more likely to avoid home and to try to have their social and emotional needs met elsewhere. Research finds that parents of gang members tend to use harsh discipline but inadequate supervision. Third, is being strongly influenced by gangs, such as having a family member involved with gangs, particularly an older sibling.

Gang expert Professor Garry Trompf from the University of Sydney summed it up, “People who join gangs seek to mean something to other people and seek to feel empowered, to feel that they can effect change in their own lives and in the world. The dynamics of a gang, with all that intensity and connectedness, feels like a dynamo. It feels fantastic,” he said.

The dynamics within gangs are perplexing. For instance, many are fringe members, not really full participants in the core of the group. Fewer gang members are core members ensnared in the center of the gang world. Youth tend to join gangs in about the 8th and 9th grades. Gangs are usually headed by males but somewhere between 20 to 46 percent of gang members are female. The primary reason females join gangs is as a refuge from sexual aggressors around them, mostly family members. The gang offers these females a semblance of protection and retaliation against predatory men in their social environment.

Programs across the country have tried to stop youth from joining gangs. To date, relatively few have been successful. The belief is that deeper social issues will need to be addressed, such as improving education and career opportunities to disenfranchised groups, before change will occur.

In the meantime, many vulnerable youth are swept into these violent groups, and have a hard time escaping the lifestyle. They are both the victims and the perpetrators as they both inflict and experience violence. Financially, gangs are an extreme expense to most cities when law enforcement, housing prisoners, and other social factors add up.

Don’t take this all to be hopeless. There are countless success stories across our nation of people and programs turning kids from gangs. A lot of them have to do with providing a positive and consistent adult role model in their lives before they’re too far enmeshed in gangs.

It reminds me of the story of the man who was walking on a beach in which thousands of starfish had washed up in a storm and were slowly dying. He noticed another man who was walking along the beach, one by one picking up a starfish and throwing it back into the ocean. The first man said to him “why are you doing that? You can’t possibly save them all?” and the man replied as he looked down at the starfish in his hand and hurled it back into the ocean, “no, but I can save this one.”

One person CAN make the difference in another person’s life. In our area programs such as the Boys and Girl’s Club and Big Brothers/Big Sisters are working hard to provide options to these kids. Consider volunteering in these programs and maybe being the person that makes a difference to a child in need.

• Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.