Guns: The Four-Letter Word of US Public Health Policy

Guns: The Four-Letter Word of US Public Health Policy

Guns: The Four-Letter Word of US Public Health Policy

Eric with the latest reviews and Reed on gun violence. 


My most recent Nation column is “Global Warming’s ‘Useful Idiots’” and it asks the question “Why do ideologues who would leave the country vulnerable to catastrophe enjoy prestigious posts in journalism?"


1) Southside Johnny and the Poor Fools

2) Phil Lesh and Friends

3) 2014 RRHOF Ceremony on HBO

I saw two shows this week, both of which were endorsements of the taste I developed in high school. The first was Southside Johnny with his Poor Fools band, joined by G.E. Smith, at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett. There are few things more fun in life than a great bar band in a great bar. The Poor Fools are unique I think because of the versatility of the their talents on different instruments. Literally everybody in the band played the drums at one point, and almost no one played fewer than three instruments, some as many as five. Often times they would move over either to the keys or the drums or a guitar part of the way through the song. It was loose and tight at the same time, especially when G.E. was making up those solos on the spot. (I still have not forgiven him for the RNC convention gig, but that doesn’t mean I can’t admire and enjoy his chops.) The set was varied between Southside classics, recent songs written for the pretty excellent Poor Fools album, and old, re-worked chestnuts. (Then again, the Southside classics were reworked too.) “Fever” had a new tempo and “I Don’t Want to Go Home” felt sublime in ways I can’t remember feeling before. The Talkhouse ain’t cheap but everybody had a great time, and I didn’t even have a drink! See if they are coming around to you (and check out that CD) here.

Last night Phil Lesh and Friends and a few thousand Deadheads took over Rumsey Playfield in Central Park. Phil has some pretty impressive “friends”: Warren Haynes and John Scoffield on guitar and John Medeski on keyboards, for starters. I can’t make up my mind about Warren’s voice. I used to hate it, but it’s growing on me. He sang “Stella Blue” last night and while there is nothing like Jerry’s voice, it was powerful and moving in its own way. Of course the band was terrific, not tight at all and equally at home with long jams and fun rave-ups. “Shakedown Street” was my favorite among the latter and “I Know You Rider” among the former. I got there late and so I missed the opener, the Velvet’s “Rock and Roll.” (It’s becoming a thing for all bands to pay tribute to Lou at NY shows.) The show was produced by the same folks who re-opened the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, haunt of my misspent youth, the Brooklyn Bowl and this incredible Labor Day weekend festival in Arrington Virginia (or is it West Virginia; they tell me it’s near Charlottesville…) that I would go to, if my friends were not such old farts. Anyway, Phil and Co are still doing that residency thing at the Capitol and the Brooklyn Bowl, so I don’t see how anyone can have a bad time.

I saw the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame show when it took place at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn not long ago. It went on forever. HBO has done the world the great favor of editing it down to at much more manageable three hours and fifteen minutes and it will be broadcast over and over beginning this Saturday evening. The performer inductees were Nirvana, The E Street Band, Daryl Hall & John Oates, Peter Gabriel, Linda Ronstadt, Cat Stevens and KISS, and Brian Epstein and Andrew Loog Oldham were the non-performer inductees. I watched the advance on DVD and while I am unhappy that the E Street Band speeches, including Bruce’s, were run over “Kitty’s Back”—which for me, was the highlight of the night—hearing all those speeches was hard work that none of you have to do. The “Nirvana” part of the show was pretty great—especially with Joan Jett on “Teen Spirit”–even though to call a band without Kurt “Nirvana” is sacrilege. I also really enjoyed the tribute to Linda Rondstadt with Carrie Underwood, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow and Stevie Nicks. You will be a bad person if you don’t enjoy that. I have a soft spot for Cat Stevens even though he talks so much; he could have been one of the early members of the E Street Band. The Peter Gabriel part of the show was pretty good too—the “uncoupled” ex Mr. Paltrow was actually pretty funny in his intro and Youssou N’Dour joining him on “In Your Eyes” got the night moving well. Thankfully, Kiss could not get it together enough to perform, though Tom Morello’s case for them is a better one they deserve, sucking as much as they do. There was no “jam” at the end, however, because Vini Lopez and David Sancious went on forever and killed the schedule. Paul Shaffer lead the orchestra, and I did not notice Warren Haynes or G.E. Smith in it, which makes it unusual for the recent gigs I’ve seen, but they were just fine.

Anyway, thanks to HBO for saving this night forever. Bruce’s speech is quite moving  and the show had something for everyone. Alas, the best way to see it is probably in your living room.

Finally, West 77th Street between Riverside Drive and West End Ave, which would be the block I live on if I lived on 77th, is now “Miles Davis Way.” Do you have a street named after Miles in your town? I didn’t think so.

Now here’s Reed:

Guns: The Four-Letter Word of US Public Health Policy
by Reed Richardson

You’ve likely never heard of Dr. Vivek Murthy. But in the wake of yet another mass shooting last Friday, his story is worth knowing. Dr. Murthy, you see, is President Obama’s nominee to be the next Surgeon General, the top medical professional in our government. But despite a stellar resume and endorsements from dozens of medical and health organizations, his nomination has been on hold since February and will likely never see the light of day in the full Senate until after the midterm elections. The simple reason? Once upon a time, Murthy had the audacity to say that gun deaths in the US are a “public health problem.”

That’s right, in this country, the prospect of a public health official stating the obvious about something that takes 32,000 lives each year is enough to be deemed controversial. At least by the NRA, that is, which made it quite clear to Republican Senators that it deems Murthy’s statement an unqualified threat to its increasingly expansive view of the Second Amendment. Never mind that Murthy has since come out and explicitly said he would not focus on gun violence were he to be confirmed. So thoroughly has the gun lobby co-opted federal policy that even this kind of public genuflecting by Murthy has made no difference. To paraphrase the old NRA propaganda slogan: Guns don’t kill political nominations, lobbyists who sell and market guns do.

This regulatory capture doesn’t just impact Congress, however, it includes the press as well. Take, for example, this Politico story on Murthy’s stalled nomination from last Friday. From its insider-y “NRA stalls surgeon general pick” headline down through its obeisant body copy, the article exemplifies how the Beltway press consistently increases the gun lobby’s leverage through its journalistic framing of their influence. Indeed, to read this story is to get the sense that NRA board members can actually vote in the Senate. (Technically not true, but close enough.) Not until the ninth paragraph is the GOP even mentioned.

But by denying the Republicans agency in this way, the press only muddies the line connecting the party’s actions to the lobbyists who drive it. This doesn’t foster greater political accountability; it damages it. What’s more, it makes it easier for conservatives to distract the press on the few occasions—like last Friday’s horrendous massacre—where the debate over gun violence can’t be easily ignored by the media.

The consummate example of the right-wing’s misdirection is its Orwellian insistence on disappearing guns from the gun policy debate through the mental health policy ruse. Dr. Michael Bader from the Institute for Change comprehensively lays out the right’s playbook in this prescient essay, which was written after the 2012 Newtown massacre, but save for a few changed details, could just as easily have been written today:

"Debates over gun control vs. mental illness after a mass shooting are ridiculous kabuki dances that defy reason but have become so ingrained in our culture that their essential irrationality is invisible."

While the mainstream media acts more as unwitting enablers of this effort, right-wing pundits are more than willing to aid and abet this change-the-subject agenda. Among the leaders in this campaign to shift the narrative to mental illness is Fox News’ “Medical A-Team” columnist, Keith Ablow. Time and again, Ablow, who’s somewhat notorious for his ugly analogies, has a seized upon a mass-shooting event as an opportunity to disabuse his readers of what they’re seeing with their lying eyes.  Take, for instance, this passage from the bizarre column he wrote on Tuesday:

Let me also say, [Elliot] Rodger’s murderous rampage had nothing to do with guns. Zero. He killed three of his victims with a blunt object and knife or machete. He injured others with his car. To all anti-gun nuts: Can we agree we aren’t going to outlaw hammers, knives and cars?” [emphasis mine]

In Ablow’s mind, the three people viciously gunned down in service of Rodger's racist and misogynist fantasies don’t even figure in his calculus. Their fates contribute absolutely nothing to the debate. Guns simply aren’t the issue here, Ablow wants his readers to think, except that the evidence clearly shows that firearms played the fundamental role in Rodger's plans for violent revenge. Indeed, as Rodger wrote in one of his online screeds: “My first act of preparation was the purchase of my first handgun.” 

This selective memory on the part of Ablow isn’t altogether surprising. Last December, after the Obama administration announced two landmark policies in ensuring access to mental healthcare, Ablow penned a column where he glossed over those advances while pointing out that we hadn’t experienced a “Newtown” in 2013. The families of the forty victims killed or wounded in the five mass shootings that actually did occur last year, which included tragedies in Santa Monica and the Washington Navy Yard, would surely beg to differ.

Never mind all that, though, it’s the mental illness aspect of mass shootings we should focus on, Ablow and other conservatives proclaim. But as you might expect, this is mostly just empty rhetoric from the right. Certainly, Republicans in Congress have proven to be conveniently committed to better access to mental healthcare in the days after a massacre and then not so much when it comes time to actually voting for it. Even the GOP’s latest cosmetic legislative effort, which notably wouldn’t take away gun ownership rights from the severely mentally ill, has little chance of passing in a House committed to protecting the NRA hindquarters at all costs. Indeed, marvel at the callous, lack of urgency in the GOP's public rumination on the bill, captured by Roll Call:

“I think leaders will fight on this, but it’s very possible they don’t know where the conference is, and they want to avoid any situation where mental health is primarily hitched to the gun debate,” said [Joe Kasper, spokesman for GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter].


“Maybe they’ll find room in between tragedies to start having a conversation about mental health,” Kasper continued. “It’s definitely overdue. I think a lot of people recognize that. … If you were to ask Mr. Murphy and Mr. Hunter, they’d tell you that time was yesterday.”

To be fair, finding room “in between tragedies” as the GOP flack so artlessly put it isn’t so easy when the House’s legislative calendar for a whole lot of yesterdays has been packed with an agenda that involves taking the same pointless votes more than fifty times. But it’s not just the opportunity costs of the right’s quixotic campaign against Obamacare that figure in our nonexistent gun violence debate, it’s the irony that the president’s healthcare reform law offers a great way to address the very problem Republicans say we should be focused on. In fact, we could ensure better mental healthcare for nearly one-million Americans almost overnight, if only the seventeen Republican governors who refused to expand Medicaid in their states reversed their decision.

Connecting these dots, however, isn’t something an establishment media obsessed with partisan conflict and gamesmanship does well. Its surge-purge coverage of gun violence evinces little interest in the daily epidemic of firearm deaths our country endures. As violent crime has dropped precipitously, the press's bias for sensationalism has caused it to lose interest in gun policy as well, even though the real story about gun deaths is a much more complicated story. Thus, someone like Fox News’ Ablow can feel safe in building intentionally misleading analogies between gun violence and mental illness without running afoul of the discourse. Consider this shameless bit of intellectual legerdemain from his column last year:

“Moreover, shooting victims don’t come close to the body count from untreated mental illness in the United States. There are tens of thousands of suicides in the United States every year. The rate of suicide has risen at least 15 percent in the last ten years.” 

What method, you may ask, do more than half—nearly 20,000 in total—of all annual suicides use? Good question. The answer is, guns, of course. You’d be hard pressed to learn that fact from folks in the right-wing media like Ablow, though, who like to disappear guns from this aspect of gun violence as well. And while conservatives have succeeded in distracting the mainstream press by endlessly trumpeting the correlation between mass shootings and mental illness, they never acknowledge the broader, incontrovertible link between more guns and more suicide and more guns and more homicide.

To craft public policy aimed at the tools of violence rather than just its underlying causes makes no sense, cry conservatives. And to illustrate this, the right routinely relies upon a favorite bit of reductio ad absurdum logic—which got a re-airing this past week after the Rodger massacre—the old saw that cars kill people, so do stupid liberals want to ban cars now? Huh? Do they?! In reality, however, we craft demand-side solutions to achieve policy outcomes all the time. And there’s a precious irony to this cars-kill-more-than-guns argument, since next year, US deaths from car accidents, which have been trending downward for years, are projected to drop below gun deaths for the first time. What's behind this success? Simply put, a dedicated, decades-long regulatory and research effort by the federal government—in partnership with the automotive and insurance industries—to push for safer cars, while simultaneously enforcing more restrictions on driving them. In other words, the very opposite of what has happened over the past few decades with gun policy. Sadly, this critically important narrative rarely gets aired in the press or discussed by the Very Serious People in our nation’s capital.

All of which brings us, fittingly, back to Dr. Murthy and the gun lobby’s stonewalling of his nomination. In a way, his saga represents a microcosm of what’s been missing from our national health policy debate about guns and, consequently, how little progress we have made. After all, as any doctor will tell you, you can’t begin the process of healing if you can’t even admit that you’re sick in the first place.

Contact me directly at [email protected]. I’m on Twitter here—@reedfrich.

The mail:
Lem Genovese

Holem, WI

Dear Mr. Richardson:

As a retired VN & Desert Storm veteran of the Army and a military family advocate for nearly 40 years, rare is the journalist who can actually frame how the mainstream media distorts reality concerning how our veterans receive their hard earned benefits from the DVA.

Thank you for your clarity, cogent presentations and insight into how certain portions of media spin have failed to hit the mark concerning this latest hot-ratings-producing scandal.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

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