The surgeon general plays an essential role in American society, advising top government officials and educating the general public on critical public health issues. Yet even in the face of the Ebola crisis, the United States has gone without its top doctor for nearly a year and a half. This is largely because the president’s nominee for the post, Dr. Vivek Murthy, a Harvard graduate who holds both an MD and an MBA from Yale, believes that gun violence is a public health issue. The gun lobby says this makes him an “antigun radical” and has pressured Congress to oppose his confirmation.
It’s time to send a message to Congress that Americans refuse to be bullied out of having an honest conversation about the public health impact of guns. Call your senators today and urge them to confirm Dr. Murthy as surgeon general.
Dr. Murthy’s position that firearms are a public health issue should not be controversial, given that more than 30,000 Americans lose their lives to gun-related violence each year, a number that rivals deaths from traffic accidents. Nor is this the first time that a top American health official has taken such a stance. C. Everett Koop, who was surgeon general under both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, described gun violence as “a public health emergency.” Louis W. Sullivan, health and human services secretary under George H. W. Bush, called gun violence “a public health problem.” Sullivan was confirmed in the Senate by a vote of 98 to 1.
Yet earlier this year, as the confirmation process for Dr. Murthy was unfolding, the NRA sent an alert to its members, asking them to contact their representatives and “oppose the nomination of President Obama’s radically antigun nominee.” The NRA also announced that it would “score” the confirmation vote, meaning that a senator voting for confirmation would likely receive a lower grade. In the face of this vocal opposition, the process stalled for months, leaving Dr. Murthy just one vote shy of becoming America’s next surgeon general.
How did Dr. Murthy gain the misleading label of “radically antigun”? It stems from a tweet the doctor posted in 2012, stating that “guns are a health care issue.” During his confirmation hearing in the Senate, he explained that his views developed out of his “experience as a physician, seeing patients in emergency rooms.” This view, far from being “radical,” is in fact entirely in line with positions taken by major healthcare organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, who have all called for stronger laws to address the gun violence epidemic.
Dr. Murthy was also criticized for his opposition to a Florida law that prevents doctors from even talking to their patients about safe gun ownership practices.1 This position should not have been surprising given that the American Association of Pediatrics recommends that doctors begin discussing gun safety with parents as early as pregnancy and continue the conversation yearly. Contrary to the gun lobby’s position, the prevention of gun injuries in the home is a natural and appropriate concern for a medical professional.
The qualifications of Vivek Murthy are not in dispute—he’s cared for thousands of patients, trained medical students and residents at Harvard Medical School, and published original research on vaccines and clinical trials. In addition to Doctors for America, he founded a nonprofit organization that focuses on HIV/AIDS education in India and the US. He also started TrialNetworks, a company that improves clinical trials to get medicine to patients more quickly, and he served on the President’s Prevention Advisory Group, where he helped develop the country’s first National Prevention Strategy.
The nomination process is being held up mainly because Dr. Murthy called America’s gun violence epidemic what it really is—a public health problem. The duty of the surgeon general is to provide the American people with “the best scientific information available on how to improve their health and reduce their risk of illness and injury.” To say that gun violence does not affect the health of Americans would be a direct violation of this duty and a misleading statement to the American public. The fact that Dr. Murthy’s nomination has been held up for so long—and during an Ebola outbreak, no less—shows the disproportionate influence of the gun lobby in Washington. The Senate needs to stand up to the gun lobby by confirming Vivek Murthy as surgeon general and giving America back its much-needed top doctor.