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
Add to Briefcase
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.

What We're Following See More »
FLINT FUNDING STILL AT ISSUE
Spending Bill Fails to Clear 60-Vote Hurdle
21 minutes ago
THE LATEST
SURPASSED 80 MILLION VIEWERS
Monday’s Debate Was Most Watched Ever
55 minutes ago
DEBATE UPDATE
‘WASN’T PREPARED’
Hill Republicans Don’t Like What They See in Debate
1 hours ago
THE LATEST

"It was obvious he wasn't prepared." “He only mentioned her email scandal once." "I think he took things a little too personal and missed a lot of opportunities to make very good debate points." That's just a smattering of the reactions of some elected Republicans to Donald Trump's debate performance.

Source:
MOST WATCHED EVER?
Little Ratings Drop-Off from Beginning to End of Debate
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

The conventional wisdom is already emerging that Donald Trump opened last night's debate well, but that he faded badly down the stretch. And most viewers apparently witnessed it. "The early Nielsen data confirms that viewership stayed high the entire time. Contrary to some speculation, there was not a big drop-off after the first hour of the 98-minute debate." Final data is still being tallied, but "Monday's face-off may well have been the most-watched debate in American history. CNN and other cable news channels saw big increases over past election years. So did some of the broadcast networks."

Source:
FUNDING RUNS OUT ON FRIDAY
Federal Agencies Prepare for Govt Shutdown
4 hours ago
THE LATEST

As Congress continues to bicker on riders to a continuing resolution, federal agencies have started working with the Office of Management and Budget to prepare for a government shutdown, which will occur if no continuing resolution is passed by 11:59 p.m. on Friday night. The OMB held a call with agencies on Sept. 23, one that is required one week before a possible shutdown. The government last shut down for 16 days in 2013, and multiple shutdowns have been narrowly avoided since then. It is expected that Congress will reach a deal before the clock strikes midnight, but until it does, preparations will continue.

Source:
×