Racial Bias in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System

Modern gun control began with the Gun Control Act of 1968, passed after the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. It prohibits mail-order gun purchases, requires all new guns be marked with a serial number, and created the Federal Firearms License (FFL) system, which manages licenses required for businesses to sell guns. The law was further strengthened in 1993 by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. This new addition established a set of criteria that disqualify a person from legally purchasing a gun. It also created the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which is maintained by the FBI and used by FFL licensed businesses to quickly check if a person matches any of the disqualifying criteria.

Although NICS was created with good intent, and without any explicit racist assumptions, the NICS database and algorithms likely inflict greater burden on the African American community than its white counterpart. This unintended consequence is based on a perfect storm of seemingly unrelated policies and history.

To see this bias we must first understand how a background check is performed. When you purchase a gun through an FFL licensed business you submit identifying information, such as your name, age, address, and physical descriptions. Then the NICS system looks for an exact match on your personal data in three databases that track criminal records. If no exact match is found a close name match can still halt your purchase.

The data and matching algorithms used by NICS are not publically available so we can only guess at what exists in the databases and how it is utilized, but based on public record and one particular criteria established by the Brady Act, conviction of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year, we can make educated assumptions about the data. First, drug possession and distribution can result in multi-year imprisonment. Second, the largest proportion of inmates are there because of drug related offenses. These imply a large–maybe the largest–population in NICS is there due to drug related crimes. Lastly, African Americans are imprisoned at a rate six times greater than whites for drug related crimes even though white and African Americans use and possess drugs at essentially the same rate. This final statistics indicates the NICS databases must include a disproportionate number of African Americans due to biases in law enforcement and the criminal justice system. These upstream biases not only affect the inmates at the time of conviction but follows them throughout life, limiting their ability to exercise rights protected by the 2nd Amendment.   

Unfortunately this is not where the bias ends. There is evidence that shows using loose name-based matching algorithms against felony records in Florida disproportionately identified black voters incorrectly as felons and stripped them of their right to vote in the 2000 elections because African Americans are over-represented in common names due to losing their family names during the slavery era. It’s worth wondering if the FBI’s name-matching algorithm suffers from the same bias and results in denying or delaying a disproportionate number of law-abiding African Americans from buying guns. In addition, this bias would result in law-abiding African Americans having their gun purchases tracked in NICS. By law, NICS deletes all traces of successful gun purchases. However, if you are incorrectly denied purchase, you can appeal and add content to the databases that proves you are allowed to purchase guns. This is done to prevent the need to appeal every time you purchase a gun. The existence of this content is the only record of gun purchases in NICS, information the government is generally forbidden to retain. If this bias does exist, there is sad irony in laws passed on the backs of infamous violence perpetrated by non-African Americans now most negatively affecting African Americans.

This evidence should be weighed carefully, especially by those who advocate for both gun control and social justice. The solutions settled upon for gun control must pass intense scrutiny to insure social justice is not damaged. In the case of NICS, the algorithms should be transparent, and simple probabilistic methods employed to lessen the chance of burdening  African Americans who have common names.

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