Violence is definitely a major component of life in a street gang. For many gangs, initiation into the group entails violence, with prospective members forced to conduct physically brutal acts while also, occasionally, being subjected to violence themselves at the hands of fellow gang members. Street and motorcycle gangs depend upon intimidation and violence to accomplish their goals, which include enrichment, enforcement of gang rules, expansion of territory at the expense of rival gangs, and defense of turf from encroachment by rival gangs. Violence defines gangs, both internally and externally.
While violence is a cornerstone of gang activity or involvement, it does not explain the reason so many youth and young adults join gangs. The main reason is entirely sociological. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of young boys and some girls join neighborhood gangs for a sense of community or family lacking at home. For many susceptible youth, the structure, rules and sense of family that gangs offer serves as a substitute for a broken or otherwise dysfunctional family situation at home. The camaraderie and sense of purpose—defending the gang, hanging with fellow members, depending on each other—represents the most stable environment they have experienced.
Not all members willingly join gangs. Some are forced into gang life by neighborhood gangs forever seeking new “recruits” to expand their numbers. Established gang members using threats of violence against the prospective recruit or his family can compel participation in the gang. Members who want to leave the gang are often prohibited from doing so by the threat of being murdered. Sometimes, the person will only be allowed to leave after enduring a brutal beating by the rest of the gang.
Individuals join gangs for any of several reasons. Few join because of the violence gang activity entails. The violence is an integral component of gang life, but most are motivated to join either out of a sense of family with other gang members or because they were forced to join.