Accurate Data on Gangs Are Hard to Come By

Ed Gillespie, GOP candidate for Virginia governor, says the gang MS-13 is playing a big role in rising crime in his state. In fact, gang membership and violence numbers are difficult to determine.

Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia in Tuesday’s election, has made the gang MS-13’s alleged role in rising violent crime in his state a major facet of his campaign, running ads attempting to connect the policy positions of Democratic candidate Ralph Northam to an increasing threat from the gang. Gillespie has repeatedly asserted that there are over 2,000 MS-13 gang members in Fairfax County, Va., and that the group’s membership is growing. There’s a major problem with this claim, reports Gang membership and levels of gang violence are virtually impossible to quantify with any certainty, in Virginia or anywhere else. The Washington Post has said that, “the plain fact is that no one knows how many MS-13 gang members are in Fairfax County.”

Meena Harris of the National Gang Center, says, “There’s no universal definition of gang, and the debate still continues over what constitutes a gang and a gang member.” Who gets counted as a gang member can vary from state to state, department to department, and even officer to officer. “What’s accurate and what’s not accurate really depends on the level of training for the police officer,” Harris said. Gang violence is difficult to quantify. The FBI Uniform Crime Report provides information on the circumstances surrounding murders, including gang killings. Since 2000, these murders have accounted for a relatively stable percentage — between 5 and 7 percent — of all murders for which supplementary data has been reported to the FBI. The FBI’s gang count is likely far too low. The National Youth Gang Survey estimates that 13 percent of homicides committed from 2007 to 2012 were related to gang violence, is a far higher number than the one derived from the FBI report.