Teret is the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Law and the Public's Health

While the nation grieves over the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., public health professionals are joining national policymakers, parents and community stakeholders in calling for meaningful action to prevent gun violence. As director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Law and the Public’s Health, Stephen Teret, JD, MPH, has dedicated his career to addressing the violent crisis of gun deaths and injuries in the U.S. We asked Teret, a vocal advocate for improved gun safety policies, to reflect on the school shooting in Newtown and discuss his thoughts on how the public health community can move the debate over gun control forward.

Why is gun control a public health issue?
In 2010, there were 31,672 people killed by gunfire in the United States.  For some segments of our population, guns are the number one cause of death.  The annual cost of gun-related morbidity and mortality is staggering.  How can this not be seen as a public health issue?

Was this tragic event a tipping point for our country in addressing the violent crisis of gun deaths and injuries?
America has suffered a compelling problem with gun violence for a very long time, and there have been mass shooting tragedies in the past.  The Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, however, have moved people, including our policy makers, in ways we have not previously seen.  The violent death of 20 children in their first-grade classrooms has, in my opinion, touched American’s hearts.

Can we make guns safer?
The technology now exists to make guns safer in a number of ways.  Handguns can readily be equipped with loaded chamber indicators and magazine disconnect devices, both of which are cheap and designed to prevent unintended shootings.  Guns can also be made so that they are personalized – meaning that they would be operable only by an authorized user.  Such guns would decrease the incidence of unintended shootings, teenage suicide, and even homicide from guns that have been stolen in home burglaries.

How can we make people safer with guns?
As an established public health principle, it is easier to design a product to be safer than it is to change the behaviors of 300 million people so that they act prudently with a gun.  We have learned this from automotive safety – the impressive gains we have made in reducing highway fatalities come more from making the car safer than from making people be better drivers.  I doubt very much that mass shooting tragedies would have been averted had only the shooter been schooled in gun safety.

What policy changes do you believe will make us a safer nation?
We need to have policies that address not only the people who pull the trigger, but also the people who make and sell the trigger.  Imagine a Venn diagram with three intersecting circles, representing people, guns and places.  Some people should be permitted to have some guns in some places.  What we need to decide in this country is the extent of the overlap of these circles.  In my opinion, we need to expand the categories of people who are proscribed from purchasing and carrying guns; we need to make certain guns and ammunition clips illegal; and we need to think carefully about in what places should gun carrying be illegal.

What’s most challenging task about doing this?
Having a meaningful dialogue with gun rights proponents.

Do you believe real action is possible?
Yes.  Even though there is a segment of our population who feels that all people should be able to possess any gun in most places, they are becoming more marginalized after Sandy Hook.  It’s just too bad that it takes the death of 20 young children to make real action possible.

Teret also works at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. Read more about the Center’s recent report on gun policy reform.