The NRA has been waging a twenty-year battle against the nation's physicians and the latest skirmish erupted when the president nominated Vivek Murthy to the post of surgeon general, replacing Regina Benjamin who resigned last year. Benjamin's tenure was marked by a focus on obesity, particularly among school-age children, and guns as an issue of public health never really made it onto her radar screen. Murthy, on the other hand, has challenged some of the NRA's most sacred cows, including limitations on magazine capacity and assault-style rifles, positions which place him squarely in the sights of pro-gun advocates like the Washington Times' Emily Miller and a possible 2016 presidential candidate, aka Senator Rand Paul.
The opposition to Murthy has become so intense that the White House has decided to delay and possibly kill a Senate vote on the nominee. The problem lies with a group of Democratic Senators facing tough election campaigns in states (Alaska, Louisiana, Arkansas) where gun owners and the NRA tend to have a loud voice. Normally elections in these states don't turn on the gun issue because everyone tends to be pro-gun. But the defeat last year of the Manchin-Toomey bill has sent a message to other like-minded politicians: steer clear of doing battle with the NRA.
The current alignment of our political parties gives an impression of power to groups like the NRA that is probably far beyond their actual strength. Republicans control the House because a group of centrist Democrats in red-leaning districts were swept out of office in 2010. In fact, this Republican "landslide" and the recapture of the lower chamber took place even though Democrats won a slight majority of the total popular vote. The 33-seat Republican House majority is the second-largest GOP majority in the last 60 years, but a swing of 4 percent of total votes could bring the Democrats back into control. The situation is similar in the Senate, where a narrow Democratic majority could easily be swept aside or increased in strength by a small shift in votes. As a result, "niche" political issues like gun control become the basis on which the country's political direction may rest.
Something as important as the nation's health should not be held hostage to election-year schemes either from the Left or the Right. The surgeon general is the nation's doctor, his role is to define health policy that will help all Americans lead healthier, more productive lives. Dealing with issues like obesity and smoking is what the Office of the Surgeon General is all about. Getting into an argument about gun control has nothing to do with improving the nation's health.
On the other hand, the NRA would like everyone to believe that because there were fewer than 800 unintentional deaths from firearms last year, a number which keeps going down, that guns shouldn't be part of any discussion about health risks at all. But violence that results in physical harm is a health issue, no matter how, when or why it occurs. More than 30,000 Americans died last year from gun wounds, which puts gun violence right up there on the morbidity scale with vehicle accidents, drug overdoses and unintentional falls.
Let me make one thing perfectly clear: despite what many of the readers of this blog would like to believe, there is absolutely no connection between a medical determination that guns constitute a health risk and a political decision about whether guns should be outlawed or taken away. Ever hear of something called alcohol? Doctors have been warning about the health risks of drinking and substance abuse since I don't know when. But the last time I looked, the shelves of my local liquor store were still fully stocked.