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Politifact Virginia: Van Cleave Rates "False" on Gang Violence Claim

Philip Van Cleave Virginia Citizens Defense League president

Speaker: Philip Van Cleave

Statement:  U.S. and Virginia murders are “usually gangbangers killing gangbangers.”

Date: Dec. 9, 2019

Setting: Gun rally

A leading gun rights activist says Democratic lawmakers are trying to penalize law-abiding firearm owners for violence committed by gangs.

The charge was made by Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, during a Dec. 9 rally at the state Capitol. His group was protesting a series of gun restrictions proposed by Democrats, who in November elections, won control of both General Assembly chambers for the first time this century.

Working with Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, the new majority is calling for universal background checks on firearm buyers, an assault weapons ban, a one-handgun-a-month purchase limit, and a red-flag law that would allow authorities to temporarily take guns from people deemed a threat to themselves or others.

With urging from Van Cleaves’ group and other pro-gun interests, more than 100 localities have declared themselves “Second Amendment Sanctuaries”  that won’t enforce gun restrictions they think are unconstitutional.

Van Cleave, in a speech at the rally, said Democrats should focus on stopping crime instead of restricting guns. He blamed gun violence mostly on gangs.

“Let’s fix crime,” he said. “You know what? If you took an X-Acto pen to certain parts of every city in the state and around the country; if you cut it out and could take it off the map, murders would drop to almost zero. It’s usually gangbangers killing gangbangers.”

We fact-checked his claim that homicides in Virginia and across the nation usually involve gang members killing one another.

Our search for national statistics kept sending us to discontinued data once compiled by the National Gang Center under the Department of Justice.

Based on annual surveys of local law enforcement agencies, the Center tallied 11,934 “gang-related” homicides in the U.S. from 2007 through 2012. The FBI reported 93,253 total murders during the span. Comparing the numbers, the Center estimated that “gang-related homicides typically accounted for around 13% of all homicides annually.” That’s far below Van Cleave’s claim that most murders are gang-related.

But the Center had concerns about the reliability of its gang-related homicide numbers and stopped collecting them after 2012. It put an asterisk on top of its chart with a note urging “caution” in interpreting the results. In footnotes, the Center explained that localities had different ways of defining the term “gang-related.”

The Center tallied 1,975 gang-related murders in 2007, and 2,363 in 2012 - a 24%  increase. “The occurrence of gang homicides was highly concentrated in very large cities, with a small subset of these cities accounting for most of the increase over previous years,” it wrote in footnotes.

We asked Van Cleave where he got his information that most murders, nationally and in Virginia are “gangbangers killing gangbangers.” He didn’t provide a specific. Van Cleave noted there are high murder rates in some cities where gangs are prevalent. He urged us to call the state medical examiner’s office for data on Virginia. Maria Reppas, communications director of the state Department of Health - which oversees the chief medical examiner - said the department doesn’t collect data on gang-related murders.

The State Police don’t keep such records, according to Corinne Geller, the agency’s public relations director. Nor does the Virginia State Crime Commission, said Kristen Howard, executive director of the study group. They said they were unaware of any state statistics on gang-related murders.

Our ruling

In opposing gun control measures, Van Cleave says murders in the U.S. and Virginia are “usually gangbangers killing gangbangers.”

Our search turned up only one set of statistics, and it casts doubt on Van Cleave’s statement. The National Gang Center estimated that from 2007 through 2012, 13% of U.S. homicides were gang-related. But it stopped collecting the data after that, noting that police departments around the nation were submitting counts based on varying definitions of “gang-related.”

We couldn’t find any statistics on gang-related murders in Virginia. The State Police, the Crime Commission, and the Department of Health (to which Van Cleave indirectly referred us) said they don’t keep such records and did not know where they might exist.

So the burden of proof falls on Van Cleave to prove his claim, and comes up empty. We rate his statement False.


Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, speech on Dec. 9, 2019.

Interview with VanCleave, Dec. 31, 2019.

National Gang Center, “ Number of gang-related homicides,” 2007-2012.

NGC, “ Frequently asked questions about gangs,” Question 5, accessed Jan. 3, 2019.

Email from the National Gang Center, Jan. 2, 2020.

Email from Corinne Geller, public relations director for the Virginia State Police, Jan. 3, 2020.

Email from Kristen Howard, executive director of the Virginia State Crime Commission,  Jan. 3, 2020.

Email from Maria Reppas, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Health, Jan. 3, 2020.

FBI, “ National Gang Reports,” accessed Jan. 2, 2020.

Email from Manali Basu, FBI press office, Jan. 3, 2020.

Interview with Randy Crank, president of Virginia Gang Investigators Association, Jan. 3, 2019.

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