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Gun ScoreA sufficiently large minority of the U.S. Senate demonstrated their Orwellian allegiance to the gun lobby last week — or their fear of it — by blocking several commonsense measures that would have expanded background checks for gun buyers while imposing a ban on both assault-style rifles and high-capacity gun magazines. The knee-jerk “no” votes were so pervasive that a law imposing stricter penalties on gun traffickers (supported by the National Rifle Association) even got the ax.

Everybody who cares about this issue knows the gun lobby spends a lot of money supporting its friends and targeting its enemies. We know the real cost of easy gun ownership is measured by the innocent lives snuffed out every year by gun violence. Ask the parents of the 20 children who were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School or the parents of the 565 kids who were killed by guns in 2011. Ask the survivors of those who died at the Century Cinemas 16 in Aurora, Colo. They will tell you the real cost of the gun lobby. According to a CBS News/New York Times Poll, 92% of Americans support universal background checks for gun buyers.

So what can we do now? Well, there’s that old standby solution: vote. The NRA happily provides a guide to the “Friends and Foes of Second Amendment Rights” to any like-minded voter who wants to support or defeat their elected representatives. They rate gun-friendly lawmakers in Washington. If you are one of the 92% of voters in favor of broader restrictions on guns and gun ownership, you can use those ratings to vote for new representation. As the New York Times editorial board wrote: “It’s now up to voters to exact a political price from those who defied the public’s demand.”

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Free Credit Check & MonitoringI’m not that patient. In fact, I generally find instant gratification isn’t fast enough, so as I reflected recently on the topic of rating politicians, I had an epiphany (some might call it a “revenge fantasy”) that took its cues from a business risk assessment tool that I know a lot about: the credit score.

The credit score is a three-digit number produced by an algorithm that distills information from credit reports. Many in the financial services sector consider it to be a pretty accurate risk assessment tool, permitting tens of thousands of credit extenders and service providers to analyze millions of applications and reach quick decisions about the credit-worthiness of individuals.

My thought or flight of fancy: What about a risk assessment tool for gun worthiness? Wouldn’t all Americans — especially those who manufacture and sell guns — welcome the prospect of better predictability given the news of late?

credit score comprises five weighted components:

  1. Payment history (35%)
  2. Utilization: the percentage of your available credit that you are using (30%)
  3. The age of your credit history (15%)
  4. The mix of your credit accounts (i.e., mortgage, installment and revolving accounts) (10%)
  5. The number of times you applied for credit recently (10%)

I’m no gun expert, but surely the above could form the basis for what we could call the gun score.

Now before we go any further, I have to say that were this idea to take root, the NRA might find itself lobbying for expanded background checks.

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What might it include for would-be gun owners?

  1. Criminal record (35%)
  2. Mental illness (30%)
  3. Credit score/employment history (15%)
  4. Purpose of gun ownership (10%)
  5. Number of guns owned (10%)

This is a one-off list thrown together on the fly by a non-expert. Doubtless, if risk assessment experts were to apply themselves, the questions would become much more intrusive.

I spoke with Dr. Steven Skiena, a professor of computer science who focuses on algorithms and data analysis at Stony Brook University. He thinks a gun score would be hard to design and implement, but that it’s possible.

“It becomes difficult to build up some kind of model that really has discriminating power,” Dr. Skiena told us. “With guns you have a large number of people who use guns safely and a very small number of people who don’t. This is a little bit different from the world of credit risks, where say 5%-10% of people default on loans. I’ll guess that the number of people who shoot other people with licensed guns is a tiny fraction of 1%. You’ve got a very large haystack and you’re trying to detect this tiny needle.”

So, I guess that means we need to expand the list of criteria. How about this?

  1. Criminal/safety record: Have you been arrested and/or charged with a crime or misdemeanor? Were you convicted? Are there any outstanding warrants for your arrest? Have you ever injured yourself, or another, with a gun or gun-related product?  (35%)
  2. Mental illness: What sort and when? Do you have a chronic or terminal illness? Were you abused, raped or bullied? Have you ever seen a psychotherapist or been prescribed an antidepressant or antipsychotic? Have you ever been required to see a professional or to attend classes specifically to deal with anger management? Have you ever expressed on a video, or in writing, a desire to kill someone or espoused racial intolerance? (30%)
  3. What is your employment record and credit score? Have you filed for bankruptcy? Have you had medical debts sent to collection agencies? Do you have a history of late payments to utilities (including cellphones), or broken contracts? (15%)
  4. Do you already own guns? For what purpose did you buy them? (10%)
  5. How many guns do you own? (10%)

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Seems kind of extreme if you ask me, and there’s likely a great potential for false positives. Also, lest we forget, the right to credit is not guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.

I’m not suggesting that gun ownership should be abolished, nor am I passing judgment on the NRA’s interpretation of the Second Amendment. I’m simply saying this: Rather than trying to create something as Byzantine as a gun score, wouldn’t it be more reasonable and less intrusive to pass a law that requires expanded background checks for gun buyers and bans on assault-style rifles and high-capacity gun magazines?

This is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily reflect the views of the company.

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  • john wannamaker

    What a misinformed article. Maybe you should have read the gun bill prior to writing an article about it.

    There was no assault rifle type ban nor a high capacity magazine ban.

    What we really need to create is a risk assessment tool for bad journalism. If a “gun score” is your idea for solving the problem of violent crime in this country, I would hate to see the finance advice you are handing out.

    There are 10,000 deaths caused by drunk drivers each year. That breaks down to about 27 people killed each day by drunk drivers. Or, to drive home the point, one Sandy Hook massacre per day. Why are we not going after alchohol companies with the same zeal as we are going after legal gun owners? What about the car companies? Shouldn’t they shoulder some of the blame? Maybe we should ban cars?

    • Michael Schreiber

      Thanks for reading and commenting, John. Adam wasn’t arguing that we needed a gun score. The article essentially argues that the very idea is an absurdity. He calls it “byzantine.”

  • Edward Lowrey

    “Ask the parents of the 20 children who were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School” From this point on the article became pure rubbish. Nearly all of the mass murders in recent years have been by people diagnosed with mental illness. Yet the “professionals” of mental illness and their friends continually obstruct legislation that would get these people on the books for not being allowed the ability to buy firearms.

    The second amendment was never designed to allow me to got hunting, or target practice at the range. It was so, if it ever became necessary, to oppose an out of control government. Your band on “assault weapons” (which are not available to 99% of US citizens) is a direct attack against that ability. But I’m sure that as a consumer affairs person, history was never your strong subject. Oppressive governments abound today because those people in those countries where disarmed years ago allowing for the oppressive governments to thrive.

    Basically, Adam Levin is talking out his rear-end with no clue about the history of gun ownership and the laws associated with it. Try asking Mr Levin, how many gun laws are already on the books in this country? Hint: tens of thousands.

  • Wayne

    This sounds like another April Fools Joke, or was written by a fool. The Second amendment says nothing about why you want a gun or how many you can own; “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” Criminal history and mental background is already asked and checked when buying a gun. Stick to Credit reporting, you are really good at that.

    • Michael Schreiber

      Wayne — he’s arguing that the idea of a gun score is a bad one… he thinks it’s untenable.

    • http://frugalguruguide.com/articles/ Jenny @ Frugal Guru Guide

      What a foolish article.

      Banning “assault” weapons saves no lives. NONE. It’s a purely empty political move that infringes on people’s rights without creating any positive outcomes. “Just in case” legislation is misguided, at best, and is harmful to the rights of peaceful citizens.

      There is zero evidence that extending background checks to private parties will keep guns out of the hands of criminals, either. All the guns used in recent mass shootings except Virginia Tech were originally obtained legally in ways that wouldn’t be impacted by the bill OR were obtained illegally in ways that also wouldn’t be impacted by the bill.

      Adam Lanza was in violation of a dozen gun laws when he entered that elementary school. How did that stop him?

      How about an additional mental health law? That wouldn’t have done a thing, either. The ONLY thing Lanza was ever diagnosed with was Sensory Integration Disorder. That’s not a psychiatric condition. However broken he was, there is NO BACKGROUND CHECK proposed that would have kept him from getting a gun legally that someone his age could have gotten.

      Meanwhile, New York passed a “mental illness” gun law, and police are ALREADY running around confiscating guns from people who have been on any form of antidepressant at any time. Given the gross overprescription of antidepressants in this country–11% of Americans have a prescription at any one time, and far more than that get a prescription at sometime in their life–this type of law can easily lead to a mass gun confiscation…as it already is in NY.

      (Heck, I’d be on the list–I came down with some sort of chronic illness that gave me a low-grade fever and fatigue in college, and the college student health center pretty much prescribed antidepressants for everything, so I agreed to take some to “rule out” depression even though I had no signs of depression and depression isn’t known for causing chronic fevers. Needless to say, the SSRI made me feel roughly a hundred times worse instead of helping my fever.)

      If someone really does need treatment for depression, are you proposing that they have to choose between their right to bear arms for the rest of their lives and treatment? Really? Are you asserting that a good quarter of the population should never be trusted with guns because of their history of psychotropic prescription use? Every kid with a prescription for ADHD should be barred from gun ownership for life, too? And what kind of barrier against treatment do you think that would set up for more serious illnesses?

      If we’re going to make a law, let’s make one that doesn’t infringe of the rights of ordinary people but DOES address the extreme cases. How about a law that bans people who were involuntarily committed to psychiatric care or ruled incapacitated and then creates a database of them? That would actually ENCOURAGE people to get help because if they were voluntarily committed, it shows they have the judgment to know when they need help and to seek it out, but those who are involuntarily committed don’t have that judgment. That law would have prevented Virginia Tech–but even that would have prevented none of the other recent shootings because none of the other shooters were in fact on psychotropic drugs or were given formal diagnoses of any sort of mental disorder!

      The bottom line is that the law proposed was useless for preventing violence and harmful to ordinary, law-abiding citizens. And that’s why it didn’t pass.

  • Kevin Fransen

    An open letter to Diane Feinsein and hell might as well include you Adam Levin,
    Take a look at an opposing view, e-mail me a comment if you have a chance, This is a big country, not everybody is in a urban cocoon. This whole gun control thing really stirs up a lot of passion. Anyway, take a look. As you might guess, we are just a little bit county.
    Well just let me give you a little view of America,
    I have had an AR for over 33 years, my wife of over 27 years has use this weapon as her primary deer hunting rifle , hog hunting rifle, varmint hunting rifle, and weapon for self defense. It is small, light, and compact. She is very good with it, very good with it, and you tell us that now it is an assault weapon that you want to ban. This is my wifes personal defense weapon. In a defensive situation, why would you limit the size of a magazine? Just asking, and I expect a response. When I leave the house to go to work, I leave the most efficent weapon that I have to protect my wife from harm. Why would I limit her to a pistol or a shotgun to protect herself? I will not. She has used this rifle to put a deer in the freezer every year for the past 27 years, multible wild hogs, and has protected our livestock from coyotes and other predators with it. And I am damm confident that she can protect herself and our property when I am away at work with it.
    This is America, we will not have you or anyone else telling us what our needs are for self protection or otherwise, besides it is not any of your damm business.
    I here what you are trying to do, your “if I could have had 51 votes I would have told Mr. and Mrs. america to turn them all in”. You need to understand who you are talking to, we are the citizens of the United States of America,
    We are not doing anything wrong
    We are paying our taxes
    We are going to church
    We vote everytime and support canditates and organizations that reflect our views with our pocketbooks
    Most importantly, we will not put up with any infingment of our rights.

    The root cause of everyone of these mass killings is a broken institutionalized mental health system, lack of school security and gun free zones, not my wifes rifle.
    If you spent half of your effort focusing on solutions to the root cause of these problems instead of pushing your gun control/gun ban agenda we could actually do some good and prevent these tragedies.
    South Texas

    These so called asault weapons don’t cause crime, everyone in 40 square miles has an AR either on their pickup seat or by their bed at night where we live and crime is virtually nonexistant. Maybe if the good honest people living in those bad neighborhoods in Chicago or any of them other big cities would have the right to self protection like we have, all this violent crime might just start going away. In our area, good people with firearms are a deternt for bad people. That is a fact , where being miles from 911 is the norm. The people in those bad neighborhoods in Chicago’s only hope is the police showing up after the gunfire is over, hell I read they will not even respond right away for a burglary or a robbery in that city. Unbeliveable. There response time ain’t no better that ours. That’s what gun control gets you, the criminals have the guns and run rampet, the honest citizens that abide by the law are the victims, you know those people who can’t afford to live in those gated secure communities in the big Cities. That’s my take on it. e-mail me if you get a chance, Maybe my view is really simplistic, but it just might be spot on. Think about it. From my point of view, I have read yours and thought about it. We could agree to disagree or maybe reach some point in the middle. We are all Americans and want what is best for the country, that is for sure. We are not that far off, we want everyone to be safe and all this violence to go away.
    Kevin from South Texas

    • http://ccomwp.wpengine.com Adam Levin


      I appreciate the fact that you read my column and that you presented a fair and reasonable response. I totally understand and respect your position here. I believe that we both love this country and what we as a nation stand for. I wrote this to demonstrate how things might spin out of control if the only response to any proposal designed to come to a middle ground on any gun control issue, even one which presumably is supported by a significant percentage of Americans (like a universal background check), is rejection.

      As I said in my opening paragraph, the environment was so highly charged during the Senate votes that a provision which was supported by the NRA also failed to receive 60 votes.

      I remember the days when the US Senate was a Chamber of Lions where both sides of the aisle were capable of coming together on issues of national import. Where we could meet in the middle of even incendiary issues.

      Like you said. We can agree to disagree (and) maybe reach some point in the middle. I agree with you that we are all Americans and want what is best for the country. And, we may both not be far off as you eloquently said, “we want everyone to be safe and all this violence to go away.”

    • Matt

      Kevin – you bring up some good points. But I think somewhere the bigger picture was lost.

      “The root cause of these mass killings is a broken institutionalized mental health system, lack of school security and gun free zones, not my wifes rifle.”

      Those might be contributing factors (except for the gun free zones..?), but are not the root cause of shootings. In my eyes, a shooting takes two things – a person willing to cause violence, and a gun. That’s it.

      So, why not tackle both issues. The first is nearly impossible with our broken judicial, school, and mental health programs. But that needs to improve.

      The second issue is easier – guns. Why not create more checks to make sure the right people are purchasing guns? And that those guns are not later sold to the wrong crowd?

      Why would anybody be opposed to this? Well, the NRA is. Because gun manufacturers pay great amounts of money for the NRA to snuff out any Bill that would ever reduce gun sales – through lobbying, and propaganda. They have profits to protect.

      I am not anti gun ownership. I am a gun owner. I was actually shocked at how quick and easy it was to buy my first gun – a tactical shotgun – 6 months ago. I was out the door in 20 minutes, and that didn’t feel right. If there are checks in place before I can drive a car – hell, before someone can even give me a haircut – then why is it so easy for ANYbody to own a gun?

      I would be in favor of mandatory, thorough background checks, and even a license or safety course required to be a new gun owner. I am opposed to taking guns from law abiding citizens, limiting semi-auto AR’s, limiting magazines… etc.

      If 99% of gun sales are from good people like you and your wife – well, that isn’t good enough. Taking a gun from your wife wouldn’t make this country safer. Making sure she can’t accidentally sell it to a convict, would.

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