The post of the surgeon general has been vacant since July, and it looks likely to remain that way for some time thanks to a strident campaign led by the National Rifle Association and libertarian Senator Rand Paul against President Obama’s nominee, Dr. Vivek Murthy.
Murthy has medical and business degrees from Yale, works as an attending physician and instructor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School and has founded several health businesses and nonprofits. He has also expressed support for limited gun safety measures like a ban on assault weapons, mandatory safety training and limits on ammunition, and so the NRA has declared it will “score” his confirmation vote, putting pressure on Senate Democrats running tight re-election races in red states to block Murthy’s confirmation. As The New York Times reported on Saturday, the White House is “recalibrating” its strategy towards Murthy’s nomination, meaning the Senate vote will either be delayed or never happen.
This isn’t the first time the NRA has held up a nominee: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives went without a director for seven years because of opposition from the gun lobby. But never before has the group set itself so strongly against a surgeon general nominee. So why now? The NRA said Murthy’s “blatant activism on behalf of gun control” attracted their attention.
But the gun lobby’s campaign against Murthy isn’t really about his record, or him at all. His positions on guns are hardly radical or even activist, and his views are consistent with those of the majority of Americans. Polling indicates that the public is far more supportive of new gun control laws than members of Congress or, certainly, the NRA.
Furthermore, Murthy’s views represent a consensus among medical professionals that gun violence is a major public health issue. Gun violence, including suicide, kills some 30,000 Americans every year, about the same number as car accidents. Cars are highly regulated for health and safety; guns, barely. Accordingly, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, among many others, have called for stronger gun safety laws. It would be surprising if, as a doctor, Murthy did not have concerns about gun violence and the strength of current regulations.
With public health professionals engaging more forcefully on the gun issue, the NRA has a pressing interest in muting their calls for stronger policy. Really, the campaign against Murthy is the continuation of a longstanding effort to make discussion of gun violence taboo. For years the NRA has worked to bury information about gun violence and its public health implications. The NRA has campaigned successfully to ban registries that collect data on guns used in crimes, and in 1996 the group fought for and won legislation that froze federal funding for research on gun violence. Although Obama lifted the restriction last year in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, there’s still very little money—federal and private—for gun research and not enough data, said David Hemenway, an expert on injury at the Harvard School of Public Health.