The National Rifle Association is well on its way to blocking President Obama’s choice for surgeon general, a Boston physician who has criticized the NRA and supported a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons. Vivek Murthy was nominated last fall, and a Boston Globe profile from November didn’t flag the gun issue, instead predicting, “Murthy could face some tough questions about his close association with Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which has been hit with criticism over its flawed implementation.” Also from the Globe story: “some of Obama’s critics say Murthy may get less scrutiny than some other nominees have because the surgeon general is seen as largely a figurehead position.”
But there’s no such thing as a figurehead position in the eyes of the NRA. No one would be surprised if the group argued that kids should be allowed to carry at the Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn. (Those eggs are more threatening than popcorn.)
Up to 10 Democratic senators from red states (including incumbents up for re-election this fall in Alaska, Arkansas, and Louisiana) are reportedly opposing Murthy, making it impossible for him to win a majority vote. Murthy is radioactive because of past statements like this tweet from 2012, reported by David Weigel: “Tired of politicians playing politics w/ guns, putting lives at risk b/c they’re scared of NRA. Guns are a health care issue. #debatehealth.” (See a PDF of the NRA's letter to senators concerning the Murthy nomination here.)
Ironically, the December 2012 massacre in Newtown, Connecticut — in which a gunman killed 20 schoolchildren and six adults before killing himself — has been a boon for the NRA and a huge setback for gun-control advocates. Businessweek’s Paul M. Barnett writes that last year’s failure to reinstate the ban on semi-automatic assault weapons “continues to haunt the Democrats” and keeps them from pursuing any other kind of firearms regulation.
While arguing that Murthy should be confirmed, partly because he would have no role in crafting gun policy as surgeon general, Barnett is uncomfortable with any move to “equate firearm possession with a viral contagion.” Murthy’s approach, Barnett writes, “fails to appreciate and respect that law-abiding gun owners, and there are many millions of them, do not see themselves as disease vectors.”
That’s putting it mildly. To many NRA members, the very mention of Newtown is a despicable slur, akin to saying that the Jews killed Christ or that all Muslims are terrorists. The NRA would be fearful of the backlash from another Newtown if such events didn’t help them recruit members and raise money.
TPM’s Sahil Kapur has a theory on why the NRA has come out so aggressively against Murthy:
The aggressive pro-gun lobbying group has crushed its gun control opponents over the last two decades, racking up victory after victory in Congress and the Supreme Court. With lawmakers on their side, and the courts on their side, the logical next step is to go after public servants who dare to cross them. It doesn’t hurt to find new ways to excite members and keep the funds flowing, even if it means extending their tentacles into uncharted waters. Without new ways to instill fear that the government is coming for peoples’ guns, member enthusiasm wanes and fundraising slows down.
Meanwhile, the Boston Globe’s Derrick Z. Jackson is concerned about partisan battles diminishing the role of the nation’s chief health officer. He recalls how Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, at first caricatured as an anti-abortion zealot, took bold steps in the 1980s in educating the public about the AIDS epidemic and the dangers of second-hand cigarette smoke. Since then, he asks:
what surgeon general has been allowed to call upon the country for anything? Not a single surgeon general since Koop has become a household name and the one who came closest, Joycelyn Elders, was fired by President Clinton a year into her tenure for suggesting masturbation could be part of sex education in the battle against HIV/AIDS.
The NRA may be content to keep gun violence out of the purview of the surgeon general. But it’s model for junk-food manufacturers, cigarette companies and the like to muzzle public health leaders — provided they can get enough Americans to pony up donations.
Image of executive vice president Wayne LaPierre from the NRA website.