The Unreliable Statistics of Gang Violence

The article “Gang Stats Aren’t Remotely Reliable, But Voters Keep Hearing About Them Anyway” from FiveThirtyEight discusses the issues with gang violence data.

Gang Violence Data and How its Specifically Being Used

Politicians like Ed Gillespie, a Republican candidate for the governor of Virginia, are making outrageous claims about gang violence and its role in policy positions. Gillespie has connected the gang MS-13’s rising crime to the policy positions regarding sanctuary cities of the Democratic candidate for governor of the same state. Gillespie has “asserted that there are over 2,000 MS-13 gang members in Fairfax County, Virginia and that the group’s membership is growing.” The author argues that there is a significant issue with this claim: Gang membership and levels of gang violence are impossible to quantify with any certainty.

Various fact-checks have linked Gillespie’s claim to other relative statistics such as a Fairfax County government presentation on gang violence, but ultimately the other statistics while relative are not relevant enough to claim as the exact same.

Why There are Discrepancies with Gang Violence Data

According to Meena Harris, the director of the National Gang Center, trying to quantify gang membership is incredibly difficult because there is “no universal definition of ‘gang,’ and the debate still continues over what construes a gang and a gang member.”How can data quantify something when statisticians can’t even qualify that something? This lack of consistency means that each agency in each state is qualifying “gang” and “gang membership” differently. It’s been shown that “[d]eterming gang involvement … is up to the individual police departments, and most either underreport gang killings or do not report them at all.” This is best exemplified by the fact that in 2015, New Orleans reported zero gang killings to the FBI enough a city report “found that gang members were involved in 49 murders that year.”


Based on the data and its inconsistencies, the author stated that there may be a couple of reasons as to the issues with reporting gang violence such as “increased awareness of gangs,” “more resources being dedicated to countering gangs,” or “better training of officers to identify gang members.” These conclusions feel sound because the author provides more than one option as to why there are issues with data on gang violence, meaning that the author has a higher likelihood of being correct.

Social/Cultural Implications

Even though this gang violence data is being used by politicians, the article has more of a social and cultural implication than a political one. It’s more social and cultural because it’s not so much that the data is being used by politicians, but that it’s being used politically to impact the ways in which residents of the United States live their lives socially and culturally.

Significant (?) Biases

I did not find any significant biases in this analysis other than small biases such as the author being a crime analyst based in New Orleans, so it makes sense that he would reference the 49 murders from New Orleans in 2015 and that he would even be writing about this issue. The article feels more liberal than conservative, but ultimately more moderate than either. I think that it’s important to note that while there are some salient biases in this article, there don’t appear to be any significant biases.

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