Contrary to popular belief, drug users are not likely to carry guns and are not responsible for the rapid rise in violent crime committed with guns, according to a new nationwide study of why criminals carry guns.
Instead, the criminals most likely to use guns are drug dealers and gang members, as well as young men who have themselves been threatened with a gun or shot at.
"This is an important study because it suggests we should rethink the presumption that the pharmacological effect of drugs makes people violent and do crazy things," said Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie-Mellon University. "Instead it is the drug industry, the sellers, not the users, that are contributing to the epidemic of guns.
"This certainly raises a question about the war on drugs," Mr. Blumstein said of the campaign to arrest and give lengthy prison sentences to drug users.
"It suggests that the target ought to be the drug sellers, rather than the users, so there are fewer people who feel compelled to acquire and use guns," he said.
The study was conducted by Scott Decker, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, using data on about 4,000 people arrested in 11 cities earlier this year. The survey drew on the Justice Department's Drug Use Forecasting program, a quarterly analysis of arrests that has produced widely accepted evidence that from one-half to three-quarters of people arrested have drugs in their systems.
Among the cities where Mr. Decker studied criminals' use of guns were five of the 10 cities with the highest rates of violent crime: Atlanta, Miami, St. Louis, Washington and New Orleans.
The study was intended to try to understand who uses guns in order to develop more effective ways to reduce violent crime by targeting the possession of guns.
Among the study's most striking conclusions, Mr. Decker said, was that there was little connection between the type of crime people were arrested for and whether they carried a gun.
"We had preconceived notions that people charged with violent crimes would be more likely to own a weapon," Mr. Decker said. "But there was no correlation."
The study also found that most drug dealers and gang members tended to acquire guns illegally, either by stealing them, buying them from non-federally registered dealers or borrowing them from friends. Especially among young people, a gun may actually be owned by several people with one person keeping it at his house.
In many cases, the crack business has helped spawn a large new illegal firearms market, Mr. Decker said, as drug sellers have become, in effect, pawn brokers, the person through whom guns as well as drugs can be bought and sold.
It is drug dealers, rather than drug users, who use guns, Mr. Decker said, because they are usually carrying valuable quantities of drugs and large amounts of money and need the protection of a gun more than ordinary users.
In addition, drug users who have guns often quickly sell them to dealers to buy drugs, Mr. Decker said.
Robert Silbering, the chief narcotics prosecutor in New York City, said he agreed with the study's findings.
"People have a common misperception, that drug users use guns to support their habits," Mr. Silbering said.
"That is true in some cases," he said. "But law enforcement has found it is usually the dealers who have the guns."