IZA DP No. 3589: Estimating the Causal Effect of Gun Prevalence on Homicide Rates: A Local Average Treatment Effect Approach
revised version published in: Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 2013, 29(4), 477-541
This paper uses a “local average treatment effect” (LATE) framework in an attempt to disentangle the separate effects of criminal and noncriminal gun prevalence on violence rates. We first show that a number of previous studies have failed to properly address the problems of endogeneity, proxy validity, or heterogeneity in criminality. We demonstrate that the time series proxy problem is severe; previous panel data studies have used proxies that are essentially uncorrelated in time series with direct measures of gun relevance. We adopt instead a cross-section approach: we use U.S. county-level data for 1990, and we proxy gun prevalence levels by the percent of suicides committed with guns, which recent research indicates is the best measure of gun levels for cross-sectional research. We instrument gun levels with three plausibly exogenous instruments: subscriptions to outdoor sports magazines, voting preferences in the 1988 Presidential election, and numbers of military veterans. In our LATE framework, the estimated impact of gun prevalence is a weighted average of a possibly negative impact of noncriminal gun prevalence on homicide and a presumed positive impact of criminal gun prevalence. We find evidence of a significant negative impact, and interpret it as primarily “local to noncriminals”, i.e., primarily determined by a negative deterrent effect of noncriminal gun prevalence. The beneficiaries of the reduced level of violence may include substantial numbers of (urban) criminals, the murders of whom decrease via spillovers from noncriminal gun prevalence.