Wiser Weapons

Can personalized guns trim U.S. firearm injuries and deaths?

By Alexander Gelfand • Illustration by Valerio Pelligrini

When the Obama administration committed on April 29 to encouraging the development and adoption of smart guns, few people were happier than Stephen Teret, JD, MPH ’79. For 35 years, the founder of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research has argued that guns, like cars, are consumer products and that firearm injuries, like road traffic injuries, are a public health problem. His reasoning is that proven injury prevention strategies—notably, improvements to product safety—ought to drive down gun-related deaths and injuries.

Smart guns use electronic devices such as fingerprint scanners and radio frequency identification tags to discriminate between authorized users and unauthorized ones, and they will discharge only for the former. In unauthorized hands—those of a toddler, a suicidal teenager, or a criminal wielding a stolen firearm—they become mere paperweights. Lobbyists and major gun manufacturers have stymied the adoption of smart guns, however. While several small startups are developing such weapons, none are yet for sale.

Along with its April announcement, the Obama administration charged the departments of Defense, Justice and Homeland Security with developing smart gun standards, encouraging law enforcement to test them and offering grants to police departments that buy them. The hope is to create a law enforcement market for the weapons that will spur production and drive broader civilian acceptance.

In late May, Teret got more good news when White House officials informed him that they wanted to distribute his model handgun safety law to state officials across the country. In 1998, Teret wrote the model law, later enacted by New Jersey, that would eventually ban the sale of traditional guns once personalized guns were made available. It was recently updated by his students in the Clinic for Public Health Law and Policy.

"We're so close now," says Teret, a professor in Health Policy and Management. "I can almost taste success."