Universal firearm background checks are grounded in data science analytics

Universal firearm background checks are supported by the majority of Americans. Lawmakers in the House have passed such a bill, which has yet to become law as it remains stuck in the Senate.

Several states have firearm background checks. The problem is that the specifics of the background checks across states are highly variable and firearms can be purchased in another state using a Federal Firearm Licensee.

Universal firearm background checks provide one layer of protection against a multi-faceted, complex problem, with both merits and limitations.

Despite opposition, background checks are something that we all subject ourselves to. Here are some examples:


Anyone enrolled in the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) PreCheck program must submit information about themselves and permit a background check to be conducted. Upon completion, they are granted PreCheck status so that during airport security screening, they can take advantage of expedited screening lanes. This allows them to pass through airport security screening checkpoints more quickly, without removing as many items from their carry-on bags. PreCheck status makes a traveler known to the TSA, which reduces the need for enhanced physical screening.


Anyone who has applied for an automobile loan or mortgages has given permission for their financial background to be checked, including their credit score. The goal of such a background check is to assess the likelihood that a person will be able to pay back any money that they are loaned. The background check determines a person’s credit worthiness and the amount that is within their ability to repay. A financial background check permits financial institutions to make informed decisions about each applicant, with those who are most credit worthy rewarded with the most favorable loan terms.

Although background checks come in many flavors, seeking a variety of information, their common theme is that they are making a risk assessment. Such information is the foundation of risk-based decision-making.

Risk-based decision-making ensures that information is used to align resources with risk. For TSA PreCheck, travelers with known risk are deemed to have lower risk to the air system, which permits them to be subjected to expedited physical screening at airports security checkpoints. Those with unknown risk undergo enhanced screening. Those applying for a loan or mortgage that are deemed to have low risk of a default are approved with more favorable terms, like lower interest rates. Those with a high risk of default are either not given a loan or charged a higher interest rate to compensate for the extra risk.


Risk-based decision-making works. It is grounded in data science analytics. We all subject ourselves to background checks to gain the advantages that a favorable risk assessment offers. Yet, universal firearm background checks are met with resistance by some lawmakers, even though they are widely supported in the population, including many who elect them into office.

Any lawmaker unwilling to support the concept of background checks for firearms should relinquish their TSA Precheck privileges and be subjected to enhanced screening at airport security checkpoints lanes, or never apply for a loan or mortgage.

Risk-based decision-making benefits those with favorable backgrounds and penalizes those with issues of concern. The information provided by risk-based assessments like background checks are weighed and evaluated to make decisions. The risk-assessment information does not make the decision, but rather, informs the decision. Ignoring such information is at best, foolhardy and at worst, dangerous.

What remains indisputable is that risk-based information leads to more informed decisions that benefits everyone. Not employing risk-based decision-making ignores the benefits that data science analytics offers to decision-makers.

What is subject to discussion and debate is how risk-based information should be applied to inform decisions. This is where the debate on universal firearm background checks should begin.

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor in Computer Science and the Carle Illinois College of Medicine at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. A data scientist, he applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy. He has researched aviation security since 1996, providing the technical foundations for risk-based security that led to the development of TSA PreCheck.

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