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Drive-By Shootings

Guide No. 47 (2007)

by Kelly Dedel

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The Problem of Drive-By Shootings

What This Guide Does and Does Not Cover

This guide begins by describing the problem of drive-by shootings and reviewing factors that increase its risks. It then identifies a series of questions to help you analyze your local drive-by shootings problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem and what is known about them from evaluative research and police practice.

Drive-by shootings are but one aspect of the larger set of problems related to gang and gun violence. This guide is limited to addressing the particular harms drive-by shootings cause. Related problems not directly addressed in this guide, each of which requires separate analysis, include

Some of these related crime problems are covered in other guides in this series, all of which are listed at the end of this guide.

Problem Description

A drive-by shooting refers to an incident when someone fires a gun from a vehicle at another vehicle, a person, a structure, or another stationary object. Drive-by shootings are a subset of more general gun violence and are less common than incidents in which someone approaches another on foot and fires at him or her.§ Many drive-by shootings involve multiple suspects and multiple victims. Using a vehicle allows the shooter to approach the intended target without being noticed and then to speed away before anyone reacts. The vehicle also offers some protection in the case of return fire. In some situations, drive-by shootings are gang-related; in others, they are the result of road rage or personal disputes between neighbors, acquaintances, or strangers and are not related to gang membership. Non-gang-related drive-by shootings are not well researched, but journalistic accounts and police reports suggest that these constitute a significant proportion of the drive-by shootings to which police respond. Because of their prevalence, they are included in this guide, despite the dearth of research about their motivations and the lack of evaluative research showing which responses are most effective with this type of drive-by shooting. Even if a drive-by shooting problem is not patently gang-related, some of what is known about gang-related shootings may inform responses to other kinds of drive-by shootings. 

§ Gun violence perpetrated by other means is far more prevalent than gun violence facilitated by vehicle use. For example, in West Oakland, Calif., offenders were 10 times more likely to walk up to the intended victim and shoot him or her than to use a vehicle to facilitate the attack (Wilson and Riley 2004). Similarly, an analysis of San Diego homicides from 1999 through 2003 revealed that drive-by shootings accounted for about 10 percent of all of them (Wilson et al 2004).

Although some drive-by shootings result in the victims death, many result in nonfatal injuries to the intended victim or innocent bystanders.§§ Whether the shooting is lethal depends less on the intent of the offender and more on the location of the wound and the speed of medical attention.1 The intended targets may be slow to mobilize in the face of an unanticipated attack, and their reactions may be delayed by drugs or alcohol.2 The specifics of a drive-by shooting—in which the shooter is aiming a gun out the window of a moving vehicle at a moving target, and is often inexperienced in handling a gun—mean that shots often go wild and injure people or damage property that was not the intended target.3, † Deaths of innocent bystanders often receive significant media attention and result in passionate public outcry, particularly when the victim is extremely young, has a debilitating medical condition, or was shot while inside a supposedly "safe" structure, such as their home or place of worship.4 

§§ For example, in Los Angeles, of over 2,000 victims of drive-by shootings in 1991, only 5 percent were fatally injured. Over half sustained a gunshot wound to the leg (Hutson, Anglin, and Eckstein 1996; Hutson, Anglin, and Pratts 1994). 

† One study of Los Angeles drive-by shootings in the early 1990s found that the proportion of those injured in drive-by shootings who were innocent bystanders ranged between 38 to 59 percent each year (Hutson, Anglin, and Eckstein 1996). 

There are no national data on the volume of drive-by shootings. National statistical databases such as the Uniform Crime Reports record the outcome (e.g., homicide, aggravated assault, weapons law violations) rather than the method (i.e., drive-by shooting). Local data on the scope of the problem are sometimes generated for the purposes of conducting research, but generally are not available on a consistent basis so that long-term trends can be tracked. What data are available suggest that large metropolitan cities with entrenched gang problems are more likely to be challenged by drive-by shootings than smaller suburban or rural jurisdictions. While smaller jurisdictions may have isolated drive-by shooting incidents stemming from a dispute between neighbors or customers at a bar or nightclub, they do not face the problems of retaliatory gang violence that characterizes the problem in large cities.

In these cities, an individual drive-by shooting is often one in a series of confrontations between street gangs with ongoing tensions.5 Attacks are followed by reprisals, which are followed by counterattacks. As a result, the same individual may come to the attention of police as a perpetrator, victim, and witness.6 Police often receive very limited information from witnesses because most drive-by shootings occur at night, happen very quickly and thus are very chaotic, and occur in neighborhoods in which gang members intimidate residents, some of whom distrust the police.

Factors Contributing to Drive-By Shootings

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

Gang Membership‡ 

‡ Police departments use different thresholds in determining whether an event is gang-related. The Los Angeles Police Department applies the label if the victim or offender is a known gang member. In Chicago, however, the event must exhibit a gang-related motive such as retaliation, initiation, or turf defense. Mere membership is not sufficient for the gang-related classification (Rosenfeld, Bray, and Egley 1999; Block and Block 1993 [PDF]). 

Although gang membership is certainly not a prerequisite to being involved in a drive-by shooting, studies have shown that larger proportions of gang members reported being involved in drive-by shootings than at-risk youth who were not gang-involved.7 While approximately equal proportions of males and females reported taking part in drive-by shootings, females were less likely to admit to having actually shot anyone, which suggests that their role in the event may have been minor or secondary.

Gang membership may facilitate involvement in drive-by shootings by placing members in risky situations—ones in which guns are present and behavioral norms often include violence.8 Gang members are more likely than nongang members to own guns for protection, are more likely to have friends who own guns for protection, and are more likely to carry guns when outside the home.9 Further, while not all gang members engage in drive-by shootings, those who do are often attracted by the opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty and enhance their group status.10


Depending on whether the drive-by shooting is gang-related or not, motivations differ. Those that are gang-involved tend to be motivated by mutual antagonism with rival gang members, disputes over territory or turf, a desire to show fearlessness or loyalty to the group, an effort to promote one's social status or self-image, or retaliation against real or perceived disrespect or insults.11 The desire for excitement can provide momentum for the event, making the participants restless and unruly.12 Sometimes, those involved in drive-by shootings use drugs and alcohol to rationalize their actions.

Disputes among drug dealers may also provide the motivation for drive-by shootings. Gang members and those involved in drug enterprises tend not to rely on the formal criminal justice system to resolve their disputes. Instead, they respond with their own forms of justice, often violent, to punish others for perceived wrongs and to deter future aggression.13 Drive-by shootings are one way in which gang members and other street criminals exact revenge and enhance their status. These conflicts build and retaliation tends to lead to counter-retaliation, with each side believing they are acting in self-defense.14

Drive-by shootings that are not gang- or drug-motivated tend to occur in reaction to disputes among neighbors or acquaintances, or as an escalation of altercations that may have begun in a bar, restaurant, or nightclub. Obviously, not all disputes or tensions escalate to the point of violence, and research has not yet demonstrated what distinguishes those events that do from those that do not. At the most basic level, the aggressors must have access to both a vehicle and a gun, but beyond that, these events appear to be rather unpredictable. Newspapers are replete with accounts of incidents with unclear motivations involving shots fired from a vehicle at another vehicle, stationary target, person, or group of people.

Drive-by shootings that occur as an extreme form of road rage often occur in reaction to seemingly trivial events (e.g., another driver is driving "too slow," won't let another driver pass, is tailgating, fails to signal before turning). While triggered by these events, the underlying motivation usually appears to be a series of unrelated stressors in the perpetrator's life.15 The protection, anonymity, sense of power, and ease of escape provided by the vehicle lead some motorists to feel safe expressing their hostility toward other drivers.16

Vehicle and Gun Availability

A drive-by shooting's prerequisites include access to a vehicle and a gun. Those who carry out drive-by shootings may use their own vehicle or one that has been borrowed, rented, or stolen. Because many drive-by shootings occur at night, dependable descriptions of the vehicle involved may be difficult to obtain.

When gun ownership is more prevalent, the risk of drive-by shootings increases as well. Although both juveniles and adults participate in them, most research on drive-by shootings has focused on the prevalence of gun ownership among adolescents. Substantial numbers of adolescents have owned guns at some point in their lives, although their ownership tends to be sporadic.17 In recent years, as gun possession among juveniles has become more widespread, the threshold for using guns to resolve conflicts appears to have lowered.18 Surveys of juvenile offenders have shown that over half obtained their first gun without a specific plan to do so; rather, they reported finding the gun or said a peer, sibling, or other relative gave it to them to use for selfprotection.19 Those who carry guns for protection may be resistant to voluntarily forfeiting their weapons, as they fear harm from peers or rival gang members more than they fear legal sanctions.20

It is not so much the number of guns in circulation, but rather the number of people carrying them in high-risk places and at high-risk times that creates the potential for a drive-by shooting.21 Further, the number of events in which guns are actually used is only a fraction of the times in which guns are present.22 As a result, it is important to know the times and places in which guns are present, and the factors that contribute to their use.

Times and Locations

Many drive-by shootings occur under the cover of darkness, either to help the shooters avoid detection or because the precipitating events occur at night.23 Gang members tend to target rival groups at parties or lingering on the street. Not only do these people have little time to react, but also the offenders can boast about carrying out the shooting when they were vastly outnumbered.24

Wide open streets are often chosen as the preferred venue because they allow the shooters to approach without detection and to escape unhindered. Proximity to major roadways may facilitate access to and from the shooting location.25 Targets may include people on the street, those in vehicles that are stopped at a light or parked, and those who are inside their homes.26 Drive-by shootings that occur as an extreme form of road rage appear to be rather unpredictable in terms of the times and locations where they occur. 

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