Our View: Don’t let gun issue block new surgeon general

03/19/2014 6:39 PM

03/19/2014 10:41 PM

Each year, more than 30,000 people die from bullets in America. In France, that number is 1,950; in Germany, it’s 900. In Greece, it’s only around 165. Those are numbers from a study cited on ABC News a few months ago, showing that America’s death-by-firearms rate is 10 times that of Germany, 9 times that of Sweden and 14 times that of Turkey.

By any measure, anywhere, it appears death-by-gunshot is epidemic in America. And any epidemic is public health issue. But not in Washington, D.C.; not in a Congress where the National Rifle Association is intent on blocking the confirmation of Dr. Vivek Murthy as U.S. surgeon general.

Why? Because NRA executive director Chris W. Cox believes Murthy would “work to further a gun control agenda.”

Senate Democrats, weak and worried about losing control in 2014 if they anger the NRA, are wavering. Meanwhile several Republicans, including the two senators from Kentucky – Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, who, as a physician, should know better – oppose Murthy.

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

What about Murthy frightens Cox? How about this tweet from Murthy: “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 to reinstate funding for firearms research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s hardly extreme, yet the NRA had bullied Congress into restricting that 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. Nor are they radical. A majority of Americans agree with them.

Murthy also called for universal background checks, firearms safety training and 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. None of these are radical concepts.

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 can urge patients to wear sunscreen and eat their veggies, but they can’t tell patients to lock up their guns. The NRA wants to extend this silence to our nation’s top doc.

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

If confirmed, Murthy says he will focus on obesity and tobacco. But what if the Senate confirms Murthy? What, exactly, would be the harm if he occasionally talked about the health issues raised by the illegal use of guns and ways to prevent it?

Roughly 82 people die every day from gunshot wounds. If we have the guts to talk about solutions, maybe we can get it down to 81.

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