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Paying the price to reduce gun violence

The Hill logo The Hill 12/1/2022 Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., opinion contributor
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Gun violence is relentless in our nation. The news is filled with endless reports of mass killings and mass shooting, resulting in premature, senseless and avoidable deaths.

School shootings attract widespread attention, as seen by the recent University of Virginia mass shooting. The mass murders in a nightclub in Colorado Springs and a Walmart in Chesapeake, Virginia are heinous acts of gun violence, illustrating the unpredictability of all such events, with the holiday season not providing any deterrence or restraint.

Gun violence led to over 45,000 deaths in 2021, with the highest proportion suicides, followed by homicides. Mass shootings and mass murders garner the most public attention yet represent just 2 percent of all firearm deaths.

There are no free lunches when it comes to reducing gun violence deaths. Politicians have been long on talk and short on action, with little improvement to show for their efforts. Conflicts of interest and self-serving motives make them the least qualified people to make substantive changes. Politicians have also used the excuse of gridlock to do nothing and continue the scourge of gun violence. They regrettably also hold the power to set and enact laws that are necessary to make changes that could yield positive results and reduce population risk.

But reducing risk carries with it a price.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is a government agency whose mission requires them to pay a price to reduce risk every day. The TSA buys down risk by implementing multiple security layers designed to prevent acts of violence that could lead to lives lost and property damaged in the nation’s transportation systems. Every layer has a price, both in direct dollars and indirect costs to travelers.

For air travel, it would be unnecessarily burdensome to conduct full body searches of every passenger. Any benefit of reduced risk would not justify the cost in manpower, security devices and time to undertake such screenings. This observation is the foundation for TSA PreCheck, the risk-based security program available to anyone willing to undergo a background vetting. 

The goal of buying down risk should be to provide maximal risk reduction at a cost commensurate with the benefit. 

This idea can be applied to reduce gun violence and the associated deaths and injuries. 

Some argue that the problem with gun violence is not guns, but who has access to them. There is truth to this statement, given that suicides compromise over one-half of all gun violence deaths. Yet, access to firearms increases the likelihood that a suicide attempt is successful

Universal background checks provide a cost-effective way to reduce the risk that the “wrong people” have access to guns, while maintaining access for responsible gun owners. Universal background checks would not be airtight. However, they will lead to improvements. They are also grounded in data science analytics. 

Defining the elements to include in universal background checks should be deliberated outside the political arena, involving representatives and stakeholders from the judicial, law enforcement and medical communities. All three of these factions bear the brunt of the impact when firearms end up in the wrong hands. The disqualifying factors for enrollment in TSA PreCheck provide an appropriate starting point for such discussions. 

Moreover, the execution and enforcement of universal background checks should be managed through a private/public partnership, providing a buffer from political influence.  

Responsible gun ownership should be the standard. Most gun owners fall into this group. However, once concerns in a person’s background are uncovered or emerge, or a person’s history or background are not consistent with their choice of firearm or timing of a purchase, appropriate actions should be taken to protect everyone, both the gun owner and others. The recent Walmart shooter bought his firearm the day of the shooting. A universal background check would have likely prevented or delayed such a transaction and saved the lives of countless innocent victims.

Much like TSA PreCheck status, privileges are granted for a defined period and then must be renewed. Such renewal is a formality for most people, provided they continue to qualify and meet the standards of safety to themselves and others. 

For those who argue that aviation security is nothing more than theatre, they forget the deterrence value that it offers. Universal background checks would provide a similar deterrence benefit. 

Buying down risk to reduce gun violence should invoke the same standards of safety implemented in other domains. Why should gun ownership be any less taxing, or meet a lower standard? It should not be easier to secure a firearm than to board a commercial airplane. Both demand commensurate layers of screening.

Will such layers mean that all gun violence will stop? Of course not. What is needed are actions that can affect positive improvement.

What remains abundantly clear to any reasonable person is that what politicians have been able to achieve to date to reduce gun violence has not worked.

Buying down risk is a universal concept. The time has arrived to apply this concept, grounded in data science analytics, to reduce gun violence. If we do not pay this price today, we will continue to pay it with lives lost in the future.

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy.  He has also studied aviation security for over 25 years, providing the technical foundations for risk-based security and TSA PreCheck. 

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