If Background Checks are Good Enough for Guns, They're Good Enough for Jobs

Employers need to be able to consider all factors before making a hire.

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As Senate democrats and President Barack Obama gear up for another round of gun control legislation, I find it ironic that the same lawmakers who think expanded background checks are useful in helping filter out who shouldn't own a gun, don't see the same benefits when used by U.S. businesses to sift through potential job candidates.

Last week the U.S. government, through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sued retailer Dollar General Corp. and car manufacturer BMW AG, for discriminating against African-Americans because both companies used criminal background checks as a tool for employee screening. As blacks are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, they're disproportionately affected by this type of screening.

Just because the majority of ex-cons are black, it doesn't mean using background checks in employment decisions amounts to racial discrimination. The bottom line is that someone with an arrest history is a less desirable job candidate then a person without one. Just like someone who has committed a crime, or has a serious mental health issue, isn't as desirable a gun owner as someone who doesn't have that kind of background.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

Democratic lawmakers have embraced background screening for those looking to buy a gun, but balk at using the tool as a method for hiring, even though the premise of both arguments is the same – judging a population on their past as an indicator for future actions.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg blasted Senate Democrats last week for not clearing a proposed gun control bill that would've expanded checks to gun shows and Internet sales, calling on political donors to dry up their campaign funding until the legislation is passed. Yet, in his City, he's made it illegal for public employers to ask potential hires if they have a criminal record, for fear of racial discrimination. He has extended that provision to private companies who contract with the city. New York is not alone in its thinking. Since the recession, seven states have adopted laws that prohibit employers – both public and private – from including questions about criminal history on job applications, and like bills are imminent in four others states and have been put in place by at least a dozen local governments.

What Bloomberg and these lawmakers fail to realize is hiring an ex-con can be risky. Ex-offenders have a variety of characteristics that greatly limit their employability, including the majority of them are high-school dropouts, and or have had substance abuse problems, according to a study done by the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank. These two factors hold true for white, Hispanic and black inmates alike.

[Read Susan Milligan's editorial: A De Facto Life Sentence.]

In addition, there's the liability issue. Thirty percent of adult offenders set free from state prisons are re-arrested within the first six months of their release, and within three years, two out of three return to prison, according to data from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. The argument has been made if these criminals could gain employment, then they could avoid future jail time. This may be true. However, family, education and social factors also contribute to whether a person will remain clean or be roped back into crime. 

U.S. employers have the right to make a judgment call – to evaluate the crime, the person, their background and time out of jail, to make a hiring decision. In a recession, where there are so many applicants for so few jobs, employers should use everything at their disposal to evaluate the people they're going to invest in – after all, it's their capital, time, and ultimate liability. Businesses don't want people convicted of money laundering handling finance or people with violent histories working with customers, children or in hospitals, and neither should you.

Political correctness may have its place in politics, but companies who operate in the real world know it's not always prudent to hire an ex-felon, regardless of their skin color. Social welfare should be reserved to government funded and operated programs, and not forced on U.S. business.

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