How the NRA Used One Tweet to Derail an Obama Nominee

Republicans called guns a public-health issue before that was considered a political death sentence.

National Journal
Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
March 26, 2014, 12:02 p.m.

The NRA spends its days de­fend­ing deadly weapons, but it only needed a single tweet to kill a top Obama of­fi­cial.

If you’ve been fol­low­ing the news cycle, you prob­ably saw Rand Paul and the gun lobby pitch a fit over the nom­in­a­tion of Vivek Murthy, the Har­vard- and Yale-edu­cated phys­i­cian Obama picked to serve as the na­tion’s top doc­tor. Murthy’s biggest crime, bey­ond some con­cerns that he would “pro­pa­gand­ize” on be­half of the Af­ford­able Care Act, was simply that he de­scribed gun vi­ol­ence as a pub­lic-health is­sue. Once. In a tweet. In 2012. For the un­ini­ti­ated, Murthy’s of­fend­ing state­ment is this: “Tired of politi­cians play­ing polit­ics w/ guns, put­ting lives at risk b/c they’re scared of NRA. Guns are a health care is­sue.”

Since then he has earned the un­dy­ing ire of the NRA, which went pub­lic in its op­pos­i­tion to Murthy, threat­en­ing to “score” — track how law­makers vote — any vote taken against him. Such meas­ures might make sense if the sur­geon gen­er­al were in a po­s­i­tion to reg­u­late guns, but the post is a largely ce­re­mo­ni­al seat used to high­light press­ing health con­cerns.

Murthy’s claim is not par­tic­u­larly nov­el, even among Re­pub­lic­ans hold­ing the ex­act same po­s­i­tion. “I doubt there’s been a sur­geon gen­er­al dat­ing back to the days of Lyn­don John­son that would pass the NRA lit­mus test,” Jim Kessler with the cent­rist Demo­crat­ic group Third Way told The Daily Beast.

Un­til now, they nev­er had to.

C. Ever­ett Koop, Pres­id­ent Re­agan’s sur­geon gen­er­al, made pre­cisely Murthy’s point. Writ­ing in the Journ­al of the Amer­ic­an Med­ic­al As­so­ci­ation in 1992, he called gun vi­ol­ence “a pub­lic-health emer­gency” and pro­posed that own­ing and op­er­at­ing a fire­arm carry with it the same re­stric­tions as own­ing and op­er­at­ing a car. Koop did even­tu­ally ali­en­ate him­self from con­ser­vat­ives, but his stance on gun vi­ol­ence wasn’t the reas­on; it was primar­ily his ag­gress­ive ad­vocacy on AIDs. That con­ser­vat­ives didn’t flare up over his po­s­i­tion on gun voi­lence shows how things have changed.

Such rhet­or­ic hasn’t merely been the province of sur­geons gen­er­al. An­noun­cing an ini­ti­at­ive to fight gun vi­ol­ence at the Pennsylvania Con­ven­tion Cen­ter in 2001, Pres­id­ent Bush noted three out of four murder vic­tims in Phil­adelphia were shot to death with hand­guns, adding that the fig­ure rises to nine out of 10 among youth. “In Amer­ica today, a teen­ager is more likely to die from a gun­shot than from all nat­ur­al causes of death com­bined,” he told the gathered audi­ence. The NRA heart­ily en­dorsed him in 2004.

Louis W. Sul­li­van, Pres­id­ent George H.W. Bush’s Health and Hu­man Ser­vices sec­ret­ary, spoke even more dir­ectly to the point, call­ing gun-re­lated vi­ol­ence “a pub­lic-health prob­lem in ad­di­tion to be­ing a crim­in­al-justice prob­lem.” He was par­tic­u­larly con­cerned about gun vi­ol­ence’s im­pact in the black com­munity, where vi­ol­ence was cited as the primary cause of death for males ages 15-25, with 80 per­cent of the cases in­volving hand­guns. Sul­li­van wasn’t some freak­ish out­lier: He was con­firmed 98-1, with Re­pub­lic­an Sens. Dan Coats, Thad Co­chran, Chuck Grass­ley, John Mc­Cain, Mitch Mc­Con­nell, and Richard Shelby vot­ing “yes.”

The gun lobby’s cur­rent of­fens­ive smacks of a time in the 1990s when NRA-backed politi­cians went after re­search­ers for pub­lish­ing fire­arm data. They also at­tacked the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion for fund­ing the re­search, and won. Now it ap­pears they’ve moved from in­form­a­tion sup­pres­sion to rhet­or­ic poli­cing.

The lar­ger irony is that when Murthy states gun vi­ol­ence is a health is­sue, he is merely stat­ing the ob­vi­ous. Whatever your no­tions about guns be­ing sym­bol­ic of liberty, free­dom, and Amer­ica, when a bul­let enters the hu­man body, the situ­ation falls very quickly and squarely in­to the arena of pub­lic health. The CDC re­minds us fire­arms were among the lead­ing mech­an­isms of in­jury in the U.S. in 2010, along with mo­tor-vehicle and fall-re­lated in­jur­ies. In 2009, they were the cause of 31,347 deaths; the num­ber of deaths at­trib­uted to car ac­ci­dents was 36,216.

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