The Biker Battle of Twin Peaks: What Was That All About?

A Waco, Texas, Police Department photo shows police investigators at the Twin Peaks restaurant where nine people died and 18 were injured in a May 17 shootout between biker gangs. Waco Police Department/Reuters

If you thought violent biker gangs were a relic of the Altamont era, the shootout at a Waco, Texas, restaurant on May 17 might have come as a shock.

A long-simmering beef between the Bandidos and Cossacks boiled over into gunfire. When police arrived at the scene, gang members shot at them too, leaving nine bikers dead, 18 people injured, and 170 suspects in police custody. Over 100 weapons have been confiscated.

The scale of this incident dwarfs a typical urban gang confrontation, says Harold Pollack, co-director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab and an expert on gangs and guns. We talked to Pollack about why biker gang violence typically gets so little attention. He believes the Waco incident confounds our expectations regarding the race and geographic location of people who perpetrate crime, causing us to see biker gangs as more of a "curiosity" than a threat.

How does the shootout in Waco differ from the gang violence you study in Chicago?

I have never encountered a gang incident in Chicago remotely like this. The number of perpetrators involved—not to mention the nine deaths—far exceed the typical urban-gang-related shooting. Maybe there was some gang incident in Chicago like this decades ago. But this sort of pitched battle? I've never heard of anything like it. If these biker gang members were nonwhite, I think this would cause a national freak-out.

One of the shocking parts of this incident is that after the police arrived, there was a gunfight between the gang members and the authorities.

Urban gangs and criminal organizations very rarely get into gun battles with police. They certainly have access to powerful weaponry. Police around the country periodically capture large caches of AR-15s and other weapons in cities. Yet when they break down the door to a gang safe house or a drug location in a city, whatever weapons might be piled on a mattress in the adjoining room are left where they are. They aren't picked up and used to attack the police. The people who do attack police are typically cornered individuals or people with serious mental health problems.

These biker gangs have a long history in organized crime. They began with restless, traumatized veterans returning home after World War II. Today, biker gangs still act as a sort of private militia that police can't always control, patrolling festivals and other events. Why don't we pay more attention to them?

Geography may be part of the answer. There are not a lot of outlaw biker gangs in gentrifying Brooklyn and other key media centers. Of course, the number of deaths is lower overall with these groups. You don't have the daily deluge of homicides the way we would in Chicago. But I do think that our views about urban crime are so framed by race and inequality in a variety of ways. When criminal activity seems unrelated to these factors, it doesn't hit our national dopamine receptors in quite the same way. People tend to view these motorcycle gangs as a kind of curiosity.

So are the biker gangs a real problem, in your view?

I don't know. Some outlaw biker gangs have certainly sold a lot of meth or been involved in other drug distribution. There is something very 1971 Rolling Stone about this scene. I couldn't quite believe it when I read this news.

The police in Waco recovered 100 weapons. Is that concentration of weapons something you've seen in Chicago?

We have widespread illegal gun challenges, but 100 weapons at one crime scene is absolutely remarkable.

How do gun laws play into the scale of the Waco incident versus urban gun violence? In Texas, it has been legal to carry a concealed, licensed weapon since 1995. On Monday, the day after the shootout, the Texas Senate debated a bill that passed the House in April that would allow open carrying of guns, and would prevent police officers from asking individuals if they have a license.

More stringent regulation of underground gun markets to prevent prohibited people from gaining access to guns would be very helpful. You do that through better law enforcement and policy interventions to block access to guns among people who are already "prohibited possessors"—legally barred from possessing these weapons. No one strategy will dramatically address the problem. But improved background checks and a variety of policing strategies appear promising to deter this type of crime. So do laws that deter people who do own illegal guns from carrying these weapons on the street or in a bar if they happen to get into some altercation.

The Bandidos are an international organization. One infamous 1996 shooting between them and the Hells Angels took place in Copenhagen. Do any Chicago gangs have such far-flung affiliates?

Yes, some do have far-flung connections, particularly in South and Central America. That's a virtually inevitable byproduct of a globalized world.

This piece has been updated to indicate that a bill allowing open carrying of guns has passed in the Texas House but is currently being debated in the Senate.

Dana Goldstein is a Marshall Project staff writer. She writes Justice Lab and reports on the intersection of education and criminal justice. She is the author of The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession.

This article was originally published by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization focused on the U.S. criminal justice system. You can sign up for its newsletter or follow the Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.