By Michael Cohen
Few Americans have likely heard of Vivek Murthy, President Obama’s nominee to be the nation’s Surgeon General. But let me tell you, this guy has got some pretty nutty views.
Don’t believe me. Listen to what the National Rifle Association has to say about him: “Dr Murthy’s record of political activism in support of radical gun control measures raises significant concerns.”
“Radical gun control measures”! Go on.
Murthy has some crazy, crazy ideas about guns. For example, he wants to bring back the federal assault weapons ban. He supports universal background checks; mandatory-waiting periods of 48 hours for gun purchases, mandatory safety training for gun owners and limits on ammunition purchases. He even wants to do away with laws that would prevent doctors from discussing gun safety with their patients; he wants to see laws that prohibit physicians from documenting gun ownership be repealed; and he wants to restore CDC and NIH funding to conduct firearms research.
My gosh, this guy sounds like an extremist. Maybe even a Communist. Or perhaps … an ordinary American.
Only in America’s up-is-down, sky-is-green, right-is-wrong discussion about guns would views like those of Vivek Murthy be considered radical. Indeed, the good doctor’s views are remarkably similar to those held by a majority of Americans. According to the most recent polls:
- Should America’s gun laws be more strict or less strict? A full 54% of Americans go with more, compared to 9% who say less. (And 36% are fine with the way things are.)
- How about a background check on all potential gun buyers? Yup, 85% are in favor, and 12% are opposed.
- A ban on assault weapons? How about 54% support that and 42% are opposed?
- Even when asked about creating a database to track all gun sales, 66% of Americans are for it, with 31% against.
So Dr Murthy’s views fall within the political mainstream – and are similar to the views of the man who nominated him. Surely that’s enough to convince the Senate to confirm him as Surgeon General, right?
In a depressing reminder of the NRA’s outsize influence in Washington, an aggressive lobbying campaign by the pro-gun lobby to block Murthy appears to be paying off. Over the weekend, the New York Timesreported that as many as 10 Senate Democrats – many of whom are from red states and running for re-election – were leaning toward voting against him. Of course, every Republican is opposed. The White House, suddenly, is “recalibrating”.
We’ve now reached a point where merely believing in the efficacy of gun control legislation that has broad popular support is considered too controversial for government work. Of course, the NRA and its supporters will argue that Murthy is not just any government official. He would be in a position to potentially advocate on behalf of gun control – or, as the NRA calls it, to continue his “pre-existing campaign against gun ownership”.
But Murthy is an internist and has worked in emergency rooms. He knows all too well about the damage that is wrought from gun violence. And he has been nominated to become the nation’s top public health advocate. Why wouldn’t the nation want someone in that position to be well-versed on a public health issue – guns – that takes the lives of more than 30,000 Americans every year?
Why wouldn’t Americans want a surgeon general who encourages doctors to talk to their patients about the risks of having a gun in one’s home? Because, according to the NRA, the “radical” notion that patients should share information about gun ownership with their doctor could “curb the patient’s rights”.
The reality, of course, is that gun ownership is correlated with a “curb” on a patient and his or her family’s ability to not die from gun violence. The math on this is depressingly easy to understand: owning a gun and keeping it at home, rather than protecting one’s family, dramatically increases the potential for a gun-related tragedy. As a comprehensive 2010 study by David Hemenway, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, found “the evidence is overwhelming for the fact that a gun in the home is a risk factor for completed suicide and that gun accidents are most likely to occur in homes with guns”.
Considering that the lion’s share of unintentional gun deaths and attempted suicides of children occurs from a firearm kept in that child’s home or that of a friend or relative. It’s small wonder that groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics encourage their members to tell parentsnot to keep any firearms – even locked firearms – in a house with kids.
Of course, the Second Amendment gives Americans the sacred right to put their lives and the lives of their children in harm’s way … by owning a gun.
But considering the verifiable health risks that are associated with firearms, why wouldn’t an organization nominally committed to gun safetynot want doctors to make clear to their patients the risks of gun ownership? Is it perhaps because gun ownership is more important to the NRA than the trail of carnage that comes from their successful lobbying efforts on behalf of gun laws that resemble legislative Swiss cheese?
Vivek Murthy’s almost certainly failed nomination is yet another indication that more than a year after Newtown, America’s sick relationship with guns is no closer to change. That so many of the nation’s elected representatives continue to ignore public opinion is compelling evidence that the NRA continues to hold disproportionate sway in Washington.
If anything, the anti-gun control forces continue to win both the smaller battles and the larger war and keep radicals like Murthy who believe thatgun deaths should be cut in half by 2020 far away from the halls of government.