Amid Opposition, White House 'Recalibrating' Approach for Harvard-Affiliated Surgeon General Nominee

A month after the commencement of U.S. Senate hearings to confirm U.S. Surgeon General nominee Vivek H. Murthy ’98, a Harvard Medical School instructor, the White House is “recalibrating” its efforts to appoint the physician in response to strong opposition by the National Rifle Association and Congressional conservatives, according to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

In a letter to the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders, the NRA’s chief lobbyist, Chris W. Cox, condemned Murthy’s record of support for increased gun control measures, including firearms restrictions, gun “buyback” programs, and the removal of restrictions on anti-gun advocacy research by the Centers for Disease Control, claiming that the physician’s “political [and] ideological motives” could impede his ability to serve as Surgeon General.

In 2008, Murthy, who now works as a physician at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, founded  “Doctors for Obama,” which was later renamed “Doctors for America,” an organization aiming to support President Obama in broadening health care access.

Now, Murthy faces criticism by Republicans and as many as 10 conservative Democrats, according to several Senate aides, suggesting that he will face a decidedly uphill battle in receiving the Senate approval necessary for appointment to the position.

In the letter, Cox said that Murthy’s stance on gun control, which the physician has called an issue of public health, would taint his ability to act only on empirical evidence and to examine health issues relevant to firearm owners.

“Dr. Murthy’s record of political activism in support of radical gun control measures raises significant concerns about...the likelihood he would use the office of Surgeon General to further his pre-existing campaign against gun ownership,” Cox said.

When asked last week if the White House would abandon support for Murthy’s confirmation, Carney told reporters that the Executive Office was re-evaluating its approach, although it remained optimistic about the appointment.

“We expect him to get confirmed ultimately and be one of the country’s most powerful messengers on health and wellness,” Carney said.

According to Arthur L. Caplan, head of the Division of Bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center and advocate for the treatment of gun violence as a public health issue, the opposition is a politicized attempt to distance gun violence from discussions of public health.

“The effort to block him by the NRA is absurd on its face, has no merit, is utterly politics, and is inimical to the health of all Americans,” Caplan said in an interview. “It’s ridiculous. It’s absurd. It shouldn’t even be a subject of debate as to whether gun safety and gun violence are public health issues.”

Theodore Ruger, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who focuses on constitutional and health law, stressed that the Surgeon General is but an advisor to the President—and thus does not directly implement the Executive Branch’s legislative agenda.

Recalling the decades-long latency period before legal action was taken after the Surgeon General’s first reports linking smoking and health issues in the 1960s, Ruger said that, in the case of Murthy, there would be a disconnect between his political views and actual gun control legislation.

This makes the opposition look much more like a political statement than any serious concern that an Surgeon General is going to restrict gun rights,” Ruger said.

Still, according to Caplan, the role entails significant influence over the lifestyle and behavioral decisions of the American public, while working within the limits of information validated by scientific research and scholarship.

“The office, in a strange way, is nothing more than a bully pulpit. It’s a very loud megaphone,” said Caplan. “You don’t make laws. What you’re trying to do is to get people to be healthier by being a conduit to the latest research and wisdom about what you can do to be healthy.”

Contrary to what one might expect, said Ruger, opposition to gun control has grown in recent years, despite the 2008 landmark case District of Columbia v. Heller, in which the Supreme Court upheld an individual’s right to possess a firearm, at least in federal enclaves such as the District of Columbia.

“What seems to have happened is that the voices against gun control have gotten even more extreme since Heller, and more aggressive since Sandy Hook, and opposing even very moderate gun control legislation that would have been widely agreed to a decade ago,” he said. “We can clearly say that it is politically and constitutionally more difficult than it has ever been to regulate guns in the United States.”

According to Caplan, however, the fierce opposition to gun control does not necessarily reflect the views of the broader American population.

“I think that the position of the NRA still remains ‘we can’t give an inch or the law will break and we will not be able to stop a cascade of restrictions on gun ownership and sales,’” he said. “But I think the opposite is true: Americans are very positive about guns, but they want to see them used safely and responsibly.”

—Staff writer Alexander H. Patel can be reached at Follow him on twitter @alexhpatel.


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