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Four months ago, Vivek H. Murthy ’98, a Harvard Medical School instructor and practicing physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, was nominated by President Obama for the position of U.S. Surgeon General. That confirmation seemed all but certain after a November rules change in the Senate set 51 votes as the new requirement for most executive appointees. But that was before the National Rifle Association got involved.
The NRA has mounted an aggressive campaign against Dr. Murthy for his previously voiced support of gun control measures like an assault weapons ban, ammunition size limits, a gun buyback program, and permission for the Centers for Disease Control to study the public health effects of guns. That these sensible reforms—coming at a time when roughly 100,000 people a year are shot in America and one year after the horrific mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School—have drawn so much ire from the NRA is a sad reflection of the extremes to which the pro-gun lobby has driven itself.
The gun-rights group has announced that it would “score” any confirmation vote on Dr. Murthy, meaning that any vote to confirm the nominee would negatively affect a legislator’s annual rating from the group. This is an unusual and disappointing move for the NRA to employ in blocking a nominee for the surgeon general, whose role is largely one of public advocacy, not policy-making. More concerning is the refusal of as many as 10 conservative Democratic Senators, many of whom face uphill reelections this fall, to confirm their president’s nominee. It’s a sad show of political expediency, and it reflects poorly on the leadership of the president as well as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who were similarly unable to stop defections when a bipartisan gun control bill was blocked in the Senate last year.
In his letter to Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell describing his organization’s strong opposition to the nomination, Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA, wrote that Dr. Murthy “would use the office of Surgeon General to further his preexisting campaign against gun ownership.” But mandatory licensing, waiting periods, and limits on certain kinds of ammunition are far from radical positions. These reforms are desperately needed to reduce a broken system in which nearly 10,000 American children are injured or killed by guns each year.
Cox dismisses the buyback program that Murthy endorsed, even though the Australian buyback program in 1996—begun in response to a massacre in Tasmania that killed 35—was hugely successful: The firearm homicide and firearm suicide rates both fell by around 60 percent.
Most disturbing is the NRA’s implicit message that gun violence is not only a problem not worth solving, but also an issue that shouldn’t be discussed. But as Aldous Huxley wrote, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
If the gun violence that kills thousands of Americans each year doesn’t qualify as a public health issue worthy of the surgeon general’s attention, then what does? The political opposition to Dr. Murthy is counterproductive, and reflects a broken system of politicized nominations.
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