Often, the blame is placed on social and economic disadvantages, lack of parental involvement, or a failure of institutionalized support such as the foster care system. Intervening in a child's pre-teen years could help change the child's first inappropriate steps down the road to becoming a gang member. Yet, many of the child's decisions to engage in extreme anti-social behavior have their foundation outside the child's upbringing, socio-economic status, or physical environment. The social environment of today's youth has left them vulnerable to the influence of gangs, and has helped shaped a class of youth incapable of determining right or wrong and incompetent to realistically weigh the outcome of their actions.
Finding markers that could help sociologists, family courts, schools, and law enforcement predict a child's propensity to engage in gang activity could help lead to early intervention or create effective anti-gang programs. To begin a discussion on gangs and gang membership it is helpful to clear up some of the more common misconceptions and myths that surround gangs. While gangs are often perceived as a modern problem brought on by the stress of growing up in today's world, they have been around since the beginning of mankind. The origin of gangs in America began as the new immigrants, faced with a harsh life in a new country, would die or abandon their children. The 18th century orphanages, predecessor to the foster care system, were set up to care for the expanding population of homeless children (Lewis). However, the children soon discovered that they could look after one another as a means of existence. According to Lewis, "Gangs were generally comprised of members of the same race and ethnic background, who banded together for protection, recreation and financial gain". This would inevitably lead to problems of delinquency and theft as the gangs became more organized and cohesive. In essence, youth gangs in America were initially formed for the purpose of survival.
Modern gangs can today be found in almost any medium sized American city, and have focused their criminal activity on the drug trade and violence. Gang membership has exploded in recent decades and Savelli reports that national membership topped one million youths in 2001. In addition, gangs are spanning the country to cities such as Minneapolis where members are as young as 13 years old (Chanen and Collins A1). Their escalating numbers have also been accompanied by an escalation in the types and severity of their crimes. Firearms have become much more commonplace within the youth gang setting and a study by Ruddell and Decker revealed the following:
Regardless of the location of these respective studies, juvenile respondents generally told the researchers that they had some experience with firearms and that they were relatively easy to obtain. In addition, when juveniles were asked about their firearm of choice, they typically indicated a semiautomatic pistol of some description (50).
This has led to more sophisticated organizations as rival gangs fight for drug territory and use violence as a means to settle their disputes. As an example, the US Department of Justice states that, "The Black Gangster Disciples Nation (BGDN) exemplifies such an evolution from a relatively disorganized criminal street gang to a formal criminal organization"