Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 2000
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APRIL 2000


Even teddy bears come under stricter safety regulation than guns. That needs to change, says Stephen Teret.
Opening photo: Teret: challenging the gun industry.
Photo by Stephen Spartana
APRIL 2000
Pioneers of Advocacy

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Building the Case for
Better Gun Safety

By Melissa Hendricks

Changing people's minds can be a most challenging task. And Stephen Teret is the first to admit that 20 years ago, when he began trying to make people view guns as a consumer product that can be regulated, he was undertaking what seemed a Sisyphean feat.

No federal agency had authority over gun safety. Even teddy bears came under stricter safety regulations. "People thought of guns as a problem for crime and law, rather than a public health issue," says Teret, professor of health and public policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. And the debate over gun control was in a political stalemate, with both sides arguing the intent of the Second Amendment.

There are now signs that Teret and his associates have begun to heave the rock of conventional thinking on gun safety up and over the hill. National survey results conducted by Teret and his colleagues at Public Health's Center for Gun Policy and Research, a gun safety think tank, show that 88 percent of adults support safety standards for childproofing new handguns; 75 percent favor legislation requiring handguns to be personalized (technology that allows a gun to be fired only by an authorized user). A majority of respondents also favored stricter laws on gun purchases, and mandatory registration of handguns and safety training for gun owners.

In addition, SIG Swiss Industrial Company introduced a handgun that requires owners to punch in a personal identification code, and several other gun manufacturers are developing their own versions of a personalized handgun. Maryland and several other states are weighing bills, modeled after legislation drafted by Teret, that would require such "safe gun" technology. Further, Teret is one of the minds behind the raft of lawsuits brought recently by several cities that attempt to force gun manufacturers to produce safer guns and to bear the financial burden of deaths and injuries that result from gun use.

"This simply wouldn't be happening if it weren't for Steve," says Garen Wintemute, a physician who has collaborated with Teret and directs the violence prevention program at the University of California-Davis. "He has brought data and his own personal commitment" to the discussion about gun safety and policy. "Steve is easily the single most influential person on the gun control issue in the U.S."

Indeed, Teret has the ear of many big-name legislators who favor stricter controls on guns. At top of the lengthy list of consultancies on his current CV is the president of the United States. Teret has testified on gun safety before Congress and state legislatures; published extensively on firearms safety, technology, litigation strategies, advertising; and written model legislation.

Like all advocates in controversial arenas, Teret also has his detractors, and in this case they've come from both sides of the gun control debate. The National Rifle Association finds the personalized handgun plan "offensive and dangerous," says Paul Blackmun, the NRA's research coordinator. "Ordinary citizens don't want it and probably would undo it." The technology could hinder gun owners' attempts to defend themselves, he argues, or cause gun owners to become lax about locking up their firearms.

On the other hand, spokesmen for the Violence Policy Center, in Washington, D.C., ardent gun foes, contend that personalized guns would increase demand for new handguns and thus increase gun violence.

Teret remains remarkably unruffled by such criticism.

Before turning to public health in the late 1970s, Teret was a personal injury lawyer in upstate New York, filing suits on behalf of clients who had been injured in car crashes and train wrecks. At some point he decided he'd rather prevent injuries than seek compensation for them. He enrolled at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and concentrated on injury prevention under mentor Sue Baker, a professor of health policy and management. After earning his master's in 1979, he joined the faculty at Public Health. Teret first focused on automotive safety. But he turned his attention to gun policy and safety, prompted in part by the tragic fatal shooting of a friend's 22-month-old son. The boy's 4-year-old brother had found a handgun on a dresser in the baby's room and fired it, accidentally shooting the toddler.

"I was thinking, why in the world were [companies] making a gun operable by a 4-year-old?" Teret recalled. "Guns were killing a lot of people. Why doesn't that make guns a public health problem? And why not do something about it?"

Teret's goal was to get the public to see gun violence as a public safety issue--to make folks understand that guns were a consumer product. Like cars, aspirin bottles, or cigarette lighters, they could be made safer.

Photo illustration
by Polly Becker
In 1992, Teret suggested to students in a Hopkins engineering class that they modify a gun to make it operable only by a designated user. The students adapted a gun using touch memory technology. It contains a reader on its grip that will only respond to a semiconductor chip embedded in a ring worn by a designated user.

Since then, with Teret's help, Sandia National Laboratories undertook a study of personalized gun technology. Afterward, Colt Manufacturing and several other companies began their own safe handgun development projects.

Teret is optimistic that change is coming. He's confident that state legislation and court cases will change the gun industry in ways that will decrease gun deaths, though there is still work to be done, he says. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, for instance, has no authority over guns. Even teddy bears, which come under the CPSC's purview, have more safety checks.

In the meantime, people in important places are listening to Stephen Teret. The gun safety researcher recently met with Senator Edward Kennedy, who asked him: If you could have Congress accomplish three things, what would they be?

Teret smoothly responded: Give jurisdiction to a federal agency to regulate the design and distribution of guns; pass a one-gun-per-month law, which, he says, would prevent people from stockpiling weapons and reduce the illegal gun trade; and strengthen the 1968 Federal Gun Control Act, which now prohibits people who have been convicted of a felony from possessing a handgun. Teret would like the law also to include those who have been convicted of a misdemeanor.

The senator told Teret he'd see what he could do.