Can personalized guns trim U.S. firearm injuries and deaths?
Story 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.
33,599 gun-related deaths occurred in 2014: 63 percent were suicides; 35 percent homicides; and 2 percent accidents.
Gun rights activists oppose smart guns for fear they will lead to further government control of firearms. Major gun manufacturers worry that such opposition—and increased costs—will hurt their bottom line. Teret is consulting with administration officials to overcome these obstacles.
A 2016 study co-authored by Teret revealed that 59 percent of Americans would consider a smart gun when purchasing a new weapon.
Teret attributes increased public interest in smart guns to growing familiarity with electronic security measures, and growing fatigue over the high number of gun fatalities.
In the 1880s, Smith & Wesson developed and sold a gun equipped with a mechanical childproof device. At Teret’s request, Johns Hopkins engineering students developed the first known prototype of an electronic smart gun in 1992.
A German-made pistol and watch combination contains radio frequency identification devices; the gun won’t fire unless it detects the watch.
Some prototype smart guns employ fingerprint scanners like the ones on iPhones. The gun only fires if the authorized user’s fingers are on its grip.
"We're so close now," says Teret, a professor in Health Policy and Management. "I can almost taste success."