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The Smart Approach

By Michael Anft
Stephen Teret has spent four decades treating gun violence as a public health issue. Now his dogged quest to save lives through safer firearms may finally be getting somewhere.

In the 1880s, D.B. Wesson learned that a young boy had accidentally shot a person with one of this company's guns. Troubled, he spent one long night, the legend goes, designing a pistol with a safety lever on the handle. The device was stiff enough that only someone 8 or older would have the hand strength needed to squeeze and free the trigger. Smith & Wesson would go on to sell 500,000 of those guns before phasing out the model in the 1940s.

A century after Wesson’s innovation, the 4-year-old son of a babysitter found a loaded gun in a drawer, pointed it at a sleeping infant, and pulled the trigger, killing the younger boy. Stephen Teret knew the family of the dead child, and he wondered how, in an age when product safety measures were becoming the norm, something like this could happen. “I couldn’t figure out why gun manufacturers made guns a 4-year-old could use when we make aspirin bottles especially so kids can’t open them,” says Teret. Where was the spirit of D.B. Wesson?

This tragic accident in the 1980s led Teret, then an assistant professor and product-safety researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, to pose an important question: Was there anything that could be done to make guns less deadly?

Teret (pronounced “TEHR-it”) began researching the subject of guns and he quickly realized that full-scale control wasn’t a strategy that would likely succeed in the near term. “One sure way to turn people off is to tell them you’d like to control something,” Teret says.

Instead, Teret has focused on making guns safer. Smart guns, sometimes called personalized guns, use radiofrequency identification technology, which is technology that answers to a ring or watch worn by an authorized user, or fingerprint-reading or griprecognizing technology. It ensures that a gun’s owner is the only person who can pull the trigger. Teret has been at the forefront of a movement to press federal and state governments to develop guns that work only for owners, and not for curious kids, suicidal teens, gun thieves, or those involved in tussles with police. While mass shootings, such as the Orlando nightclub massacre in June 2016, grab the headlines, they account for only about 2 percent of all gun fatalities.

“If we could make gun injuries and deaths a public health issue, we might be able to win some battles for gun safety.”

“The idea is that you can save lives in all three major ways that people die by guns—homicide, suicide, and accidents,” Teret says. “How many? I can’t tell you. But I can say that enough lives will be saved that we should run full experiments on the prototypes.”

Somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 guns are stolen in the U.S. each year. “I predict that the biggest savings in lives from personalized guns will be in homicides because many are committed with stolen guns,” he says. “I don’t think I’m nibbling around the edges here.”

Studies by Teret, his colleagues, and his mentees have shown that the majority of Americans favor such a gun. Their work often involves mining existing data on guns and health and has pointed the way toward laws that would introduce a safer gun to the marketplace. One such study found that 37 percent of accidental shootings could be prevented if guns were outfitted with smart gun technology. The findings reinforced Teret’s main goal: to move policy discussions away from an idealized view of gun rights and toward health and safety. “I thought if we could make gun injuries and deaths a public health issue,” Teret says, “we might be able to win some battles for gun safety.”

Teret began his career as a plaintiff's lawyer in the 1970s in upstate New York. He handled cases involving car crashed and medical malpractice. “My clients wanted damages or a settlement,” he says. “I thought if I could prevent them from getting hurt in the first place, I might be more valuable.”

He came to Johns Hopkins in 1978 to learn how to push for safer products. His interests fell toward litigation and pushing for stronger regulations. Over the years Teret has used industry studies to show that product makers—car companies, food packagers, toymakers—have ignored their own safety studies or inadequately protected the public from their wares. His testimony before Congress in 1993 included research he and others conducted showing that people were much less likely to buy toys for small children that had more-informative warning labels denoting they contained small parts. His work led to new labeling regulations for such toys. “The best work I did involved things that absolutely incensed me, that I thought were unfair or violated my sense of social justice,” he says.

When he started his academic career, more than half the nation’s injuries came from products; cars and guns were at the top of the list. Around 1980, Teret began researching policy surrounding auto air bags. The devices, first patented in 1953, had long been feasible but—in an unmistakable echo of the debate to come on safer guns—the auto industry didn’t want to be forced by government regulations to install them in their products.

“I couldn’t figure out why gun manufacturers made guns a 4-year-old could use when we make aspirin bottles especially so kids can’t open them.”

In 1982, Teret co-authored an article in a trial lawyers’ journal on the history of air bags and the efficacy of their technology. He encouraged plaintiff attorneys to file lawsuits against not just other drivers involved in crashes but auto manufacturers who, he argued, had slunk free of their responsibility to use a device that would save lives and reduce serious injuries. Teret’s work to make cars safer introduced a model of research and advocacy he would use in other public health battles: provide the research ballast to make an argument, encourage litigation, and push for laws and regulations aimed at making products safer. Throughout his career, he has advocated for the use of plaintiff lawsuits against companies that negatively affect public health.

By 1985, Ford Motor Co., facing $1.1 billion in air bag litigation influenced by Teret’s research and policy work, decided to offer the safety device in its cars. “I thought, ‘That went well. I wonder if a similar strategy would work with guns,’” Teret recalls.

Even though Smith & Wesson, the nation’s largest gun maker, and other companies had sold handguns with mechanical safety features to prevent accidental deaths and injuries, they have long fought against scientifically tested safety features that involve digital technology. Doing so would require a sizable investment of research and development money. In the decades since D.B. Wesson’s one night of research, safer guns have become relatively rare, even as products from teddy bears to blenders have become less harmful thanks to new regulations and lawsuits persuading companies to make sounder products.

Teret soon learned, though, that tinkering with guns via legislation had become politically taboo. The powerful gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, had made sure of it. With urging from the NRA in 1976, Congress took away any power the Consumer Product Safety Commission had over guns. The gun lobby’s strategy has been seemingly bulletproof ever since.

Teret’s research teams have conducted multiple studies that show a willingness among Americans to buy safer guns—especially ones designed to be childproof. His work describing how these guns could save lives has appeared in top publications, while he has worked with legislators in several states and in the White House to change laws and create an environment where safer guns are accepted. In 2016, a Teret-led study showing the public’s willingness to support safer guns contributed to President Barack Obama issuing an executive order advocating guns with digital safety technology.

Progress toward smart guns has been halting at best, so what has kept Teret—an otherwise easygoing guy with a sly, subversive wit, a passing resemblance to the late actor Alan Rickman, an all-consuming love of kids, dogs, and classical music—in the fight? Now 71 and semiretired with a genteel life in the country, why continue to bang his head against a wall comprising the NRA, members of Congress, and the millions of gun owners who see safer guns as some kind of infringement on their freedom?

Each year, nearly 34,000 people are killed by firearms in the United States. Nearly two-thirds are related to suicides; many others are accidents, mostly occurring during gun cleaning or hunting trips. More people in the U.S. are killed by kids deploying guns than by terrorists. Children accounted for 278 accidental shootings in 2015, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun law advocacy group. The average age of such trigger-pullers is 3.

Taking on gun companies, lobbyists, and governments has tried his patience, he admits. “I never calculate when I’ll be done doing the work I do,” Teret says. “But did I think I’d be doing this when I was 71? No. I underestimated the complexity of this—not necessarily the technology but the politics.”

The fight can be lonely. Only about 20 researchers nationwide (many of them taught by Teret) deal with gun safety. Congress, at the behest of the NRA, threatened to strip the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of its funding in 1996 if it continued to support research into the nexus of guns and health. The CDC has maintained a broad, self-imposed ban on gun-research grants ever since. Teret gets by on some small foundation and private grants; he spends a good bit of time on the phone most days trying to find money. Few researchers are well-funded. It’s way too easy to use the term “outgunned” when talking about them.

Not long after joining the Bloomberg School faculty, he knew he first had to learn about the gun industry and its products. Teret traveled with a protégé through the Connecticut River Valley, home to six of the nation’s largest gun companies, to photograph their plants and comb their archives. “It sounds crazy,” he says today. But “we had to make this real to people, especially academics. They weren’t talking about gun makers. They’d talk about whoever pulled the trigger.”

The trip also gave him a strong foundation in how guns are made. He has gone on to study computer chips and other means for making guns safer. “I’ve had to learn a lot. I’m not an engineer, but I intensely studied radio-frequency identification technology and other emerging digital tools that can help make guns respond only to their authorized user,” he says.

Smart guns would introduce digital features to handguns that have basically been made the same—with only mechanical workings—since 1911.

After gathering such evidence and intelligence, Teret became the nationally acknowledged leader among academics on existing smart gun technology and in putting together policies promoting it. In 1993, he founded the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, which would come to house a handful of public health researchers who have created a nationally recognized body of knowledge on gun injuries and deaths, as well as offered expert testimony on gun policy issues. Around that time, Teret began to testify as an expert witness in gun death and injury cases around the country and offer policy prescriptions designed to make smart guns a reality.

“He’s the smartest gun policy guy in the room,” says Garen Wintemute, a frequent collaborator and former student of Teret’s at Johns Hopkins. Wintemute now directs the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis. “He mixes an appreciation for solid science and how to develop policies that reflect that science.”

Smart guns would introduce digital features to handguns that have basically been made the same—with only mechanical workings—since 1911, when John Browning of Colt invented a sidearm pistol that most new models still mimic. While companies have honed guns’ abilities to mechanically shoot more often and with more power, they have done little to research how to make them safer, or how to incorporate electronics. “There is no modern technology involved in guns,” Teret says. “It’s as if Ford Motor Company still only made Model T’s.”

Predictably, he has come under fire from gun companies, which argue that the technology to make guns serving only their owners is far from dependable enough for the marketplace. Gun industry leaders also worry that some aspects of the technology could lead to unwanted surveillance of gun owners or the ability to remotely disable weapons. The industry also contends that the government shouldn’t have the power to tell them how to make and market their guns.

Firearms makers will say they don’t oppose smart guns per se, just any government mandate that guns include lifesaving features. New laws might beget other laws affecting gun makers, they say. “We’re all for the development of these new technologies,” says Amy Hunter, an NRA spokeswoman. “They would create another market for us. But there are concerns, mostly ones having to do with what shape smart gun legislation will take.”

Such muted enthusiasm belies decades of industry subterfuge, Teret and others say. Congressional lobbying efforts led by the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, another gun industry association, have effectively put the kibosh on smart guns and the profit-draining product safety lawsuits that might encourage gun makers to develop and mass-market one. A law passed by Congress in 2005 lends gun makers immunity from most types of lawsuits.

Still, enough innovation has bubbled up to threaten the status quo. A German manufacturer is already making smart guns and has offered them to American gun shops. Another company, led by the scion of O.F. Mossberg and Sons, the sixth-largest gun maker in the U.S., has had a model ready to go for 15 years or so but hasn’t been able to raise money to further test it and take it to market. “The gun companies know they’re in trouble,” Teret says. “They don’t want to invest in research or license technologies that make guns safer.” Such outlays could make their profit margins disappear, owing to the expense of research and development. Teret adds: “They could go extinct. They could become Kodak.”

In recent years, the gun lobby has mobilized to discourage the sale of smart guns and the financial backing necessary to mass-produce them. When major gun companies, including Smith & Wesson, have done so much as hint that they’ll research safer guns, they have retreated following nationwide boycotts that almost killed off their companies.

Despite the prevailing winds, Teret and his cadre of researchers have continued to provide evidence that smart guns will become a market force—and save lives.

But even with the clarity of science, victories have been few, and even those have proved evanescent. Teret essentially wrote a seminal law passed in New Jersey in 2002 that would require gun shop owners there to sell only state-approved smart guns three years after one is introduced in retail shops anywhere in the nation. But that law led to boycotts and threats when gun shops in Los Angeles and Rockville, Md., tried selling them. If they had managed to sell even one, the clock would have started ticking in New Jersey. Many gun owners saw a win for smart guns as a power grab by government regulators and the death knell for traditional handguns, making the law anathema to other state legislatures. Gun store owners steered clear. At some point, Teret admits the New Jersey law became a hindrance. But it has had some value. “Was it a misstep? I’d argue that what was needed at the time was some hope for investors and inventors who were discouraged that the computer chips for guns they were making had little prospect in the marketplace,” Teret says. “I wanted them to see there was a reason for them to continue their work. It served a clear purpose.”

Since then, Teret has narrowed his focus to making smart guns available to consumers who want them, as well as to other specialized groups, such as school police officers.

And just in the past year, Teret’s efforts have made traction. White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, whose grandfather was killed by his own handgun after robbers took it from him, has taken a strong interest in smart gun technology, and Teret has been invited to White House roundtables and summits. In a bid to bypass congressional intransigence, the White House has publicized a “model law” put together in May 2016 by Teret, some colleagues, and students. The would-be legislation, which would require gun sellers to offer at least one state-approved smart weapon in addition to traditional guns, could serve as a guide for states looking to ease the way for the introduction of smart guns.

Earlier in 2016, the Obama administration took notice of Teret’s latest public opinion survey work on smart guns—nearly 6 in 10 Americans are in favor of the technology—and ordered the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice to test smart gun technology, offer cash prizes to manufacturers who develop products that work, and write up reports on how best to outfit their police officers with smart guns when they become available.

The White House’s burgeoning interest in smart guns, along with a law now in a federal appeals court in California that could require gun makers to add safety devices, may be signs that personalized guns are nearing their moment, one that Teret can take a large share of credit for, colleagues say.

“His approach is to be data driven, remain steadfast in his focus, engage everyone respectfully, and passionately advocate for his cause,” says Stephen Hargarten, another former student and the director of the Injury Research Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “There’s nothing easy about this work. It’s a tangle of issues, and at its core are human beings. In public health, the important thing is to keep working so that when there’s a chance to make a difference, you’re in a position to take advantage of it. And he’s kept at it.”

The White House’s burgeoning interest in smart guns, along with a law now in a federal appeals court in California that could require gun makers to add safety devices, may be signs that personalized guns are nearing their moment.

After years of persevering, Teret claims he’s no less excited about his cause than when he first started.

“I really don’t feel frustrated. I feel more determined to get this done the longer it takes. My character flaw is perseveration. As a trial lawyer, I never liked it that an important part of the job was winning,” he says. “But apparently I haven’t lost this compulsive need to win.”

Illustration of Stephen Teret
Illustration by Peter Strain

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