Charles Dharapak / AP

Vivek Murthy’s nomination as U.S. surgeon general is opposed by the National Rifle Association.

Editorial: Carnage caused by illegal gun use is a public health issue

Published: Thursday, Mar. 20, 2014 - 12:00 am

In a 51-hour period this past weekend in Sacramento, three people were shot to death and 15 were wounded.

By any measure, 18 shootings in one county in one weekend constitutes a public health issue.

But not in Washington, D.C., where the National Rifle Association is intent on blocking the confirmation of Dr. Vivek Murthy, President Barack Obama’s nominee as U.S. surgeon general.

In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, NRA executive director Chris W. Cox called for Murthy’s rejection, claiming that if confirmed, he would “work to further a gun control agenda.”

Craven Senate Democrats, worried about losing control of the upper house in the 2014 elections and fearing the NRA’s wrath, are wavering, while several Republicans, including Sen. Rand Paul, a physician and likely 2016 presidential candidate, oppose Murthy.

Murthy was admitted to Harvard at age 16, went to medical school at Yale, and created a nonprofit focused on AIDS. He is a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School, where he teaches. He also leads Doctors for America, an organization that evolved from Doctors for Obama, which worked to elect Obama in 2008.

Cox enumerated Murthy’s many supposed transgressions which, in Cox’s view, make him unfit to be surgeon general. One was a 2012 tweet in which Murthy said: “Guns are a health care issue.”

Cox pointed out that as the head of Doctors for America, Murthy signed letters a month after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in which he urged Congress and Vice President Joe Biden to reinstate funding for firearms research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and National Institutes of Health. That’s hardly extreme, except that the NRA had successfully lobbied Congress to restrict research funding.

Murthy’s January 2013 letters also urged a ban on so-called assault weapons, a red flag for pro-gun organizations, and limits on the amount of ammunition individuals can purchase. Such ideas won’t get through Congress anytime soon, but they’re hardly novel concepts.

Murthy’s letters called for universal background checks on gun buyers, firearms safety training and mandatory 48-hour waiting periods, rules already adopted in many states. California has a 10-day waiting period. The letter also asked for more money for mental health care, which would be smart but is not particularly radical.

The letter referred to restrictions in some states that limit physicians from talking to patients about the risks of having guns in the home. Doctors are empowered to urge patients to wear sunscreen and eat green leafy vegetables. They ought to be able to counsel patients to handle guns safely.

Responsible gun owners have every right to own firearms. But physicians who must deal with the carnage caused by the misuse of guns should be able to speak their minds.

Murthy has said that if he gets confirmed, he would focus on obesity and tobacco use, both worthy public health topics. But imagine if the Senate were to confirm Murthy. Next imagine that he occasionally talked about the public health issue raised by the illegal use of guns, and ways to prevent it. What, exactly, would be the harm?

On Monday, a 19-year-old woman, who was one of the 15 people wounded last weekend, died.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board

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