Given the tragic frequency with which mass shootings command headlines in this nation — and the stark number of firearm deaths that receive far less attention — you might think it obvious that the surgeon general would see gun violence as a public health issue. You would be wrong.
The National Rifle Association is blocking the nomination of Vivek Murthy, a doctor at Boston's Brigham and Women's hospital and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, for surgeon general. The reason? Murthy was one of the authors of a letter saying that "strong measures to reduce gun violence must be taken immediately." So despite a bipartisan recommendation from the Senate HELP committee in February, the NRA promised to "score" any vote on Murthy confirmation, meaning an affirmative vote would pull down a senator's annual rating from the group.
The result? Murthy's confirmation process has gone nowhere.
Several editors at the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine recently penned an editorial in defense of the nominee. "Ten Senate Democrats are apparently prepared to vote against Murthy's confirmation because of his personal views on firearms — a demonstration of just how much political power our legislators have ceded to the NRA," they write. "By obstructing the President's nomination of Vivek Murthy as surgeon general, the NRA is taking its single-issue political blackmail to a new level."
Murthy testified that he would focus on the nation's obesity epidemic, not gun violence, during his tenure as surgeon general.
The reforms Murthy proposes in that letter —universal background checks, mandatory waiting periods, eliminating prohibitions on gun violence research, a ban on assault weapons — are mainstream with the public and with leaders in public health. Similar recommendations have come from the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American College of Emergency Physicians.
Firearm homicides might be on the decline, but this weekend's tragedy in Santa Barbara throws into sharp relief the danger of continuing to sidestep the issue. "This incident — like many others — underscores that gun violence is indeed a major public health concern," said Harold Pollack, co-director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab. "It's a sign of the times that a respected medical professional faces political difficulties for noting this obvious fact of American life."