By Ruth Conniff
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Gun-rights groups rejoiced after they stalled President Obama's nominee for surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, because of his call for commonsense gun safety measures. Now, even after the killing spree at Isla Vista, his nomination is still likely doomed.
An Indian-American physician at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Dr. Murthy was nominated in November. But his nomination lost traction because he offended the gun lobby with his forthright stand on gun control.
A group he helped establish and headed, Doctors for America, sent a letter to Congress in January of last year urging representatives to take measures to halt the epidemic of gun violence in this country. Among the recommendations that riled up the National Rifle Association and allied groups was a proposal to lift a ban on doctors from discussing guns with their patients.
“Remove prohibitions and barriers that keep health professionals from protecting our patients from harm,” the letter stated. “Yet gun violence is an area where both state and federal policies have prohibited us from doing our job.”
The letter added, “We have far too few resources to adequately treat patients with mental illnesses.”
Murthy tweeted about the NRA’s obstinacy after the Newtown massacre: “NRA press conference disappointing but predictable—blame everything in the world except guns for the Newtown tragedy.”
That comment provoked the wrath of the Gun Owners of America. The head of the organization, Larry Pratt, also attacked Murthy because he was in favor of physicians talking to patients about gun safety.
“He’s a willing tool of the state, even as German doctors and Soviet doctors would send to the regime information about the people that were in their care,” Pratt said in an interview. “This is an extremely alarming attitude. This guy clearly looks at himself as a government functionary before he considers anything about medicine.”
The NRA may believe its attack on Murthy is an easy way to shore up its ranks.
“Here is a man of color speaking out on gun violence,” Ladd Everitt, director of communications for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, told The Progressive. “Here is a man who is attempting to make it a public health issue. Here is a man nominated by Obama. It is good politics for the NRA—a way to flex its muscles and stoke its base.”
Many of Murthy’s fellow physicians have rallied to his defense.
“The NRA opposes Murthy solely on the grounds that he has advocated reasonable and mainstream forms of gun regulation, including an assault-weapons ban, a limit on ammunition sales, and required safety training,” the New England Journal of Medicine stated in a March editorial. “Given that there are more than 30,000 firearm deaths in the U.S. each year, Murthy’s views on potential safeguards are unsurprising.”
Unfortunately, the gun lobby’s hostility has already succeeded in muffling Murthy’s voice. He pledged to the Senate that he would focus on issues of diet and obesity—and not gun violence—if confirmed.
And at his commencement address at the Yale School of Medicine on May 19, he didn’t even mention gun violence.
One week later, there was the rampage in California.
Murthy has yet to comment.
The White House has said it is “recalibrating” his nomination, and a vote has been put off by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.