Since he was nominated to be Surgeon General earlier this year, Dr. Vivek Murthy has been criticized for statements he has made regarding guns and the dangers they pose to public health. Bellyaching from the NRA and Gun Owners of America has given unfortunate pause to common sense in Congress. Apparently, it does not matter that Dr. Murthy has earned the endorsement of the American Public Health Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the National Physicians Alliance, former Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher (who served under both Presidents Clinton and Bush) and many other organizations and esteemed individuals in the fields of medicine and public health. Dr. Murthy expressed the same concerns about guns that all of these organizations, (and the thousands of doctors, nurses, and public health practitioners who belong to them) have expressed. And now that advocacy, the exact kind of tough truthful talk that any doctor but especially a Surgeon General should do, might cost all of us a genuine leader in American health.
When you look more closely at what Dr. Murthy has advocated in regards to gun safety, you find objectives that are supported by basic public health research and common sense, such as encouraging physicians to ask if there is a gun in their patients' home. Given the fact that a child's own home is where 89 percent of unintentional shooting deaths for children occur, it is a responsible standard of practice for children's doctors to ask families if there is a gun in their home, and if so, how it is stored. When our patients are suffering from domestic violence, it is important for their health and safety that physicians ask about firearms: the risk of being murdered by an abuser is 8 times higher if a gun is in the home. Asking saves lives, and that was why Dr. Murthy and thousands of doctors have advocated against dangerous laws that would punish health care providers for asking patients about their access to firearms.
However, let's not allow the facts about guns to distract us from the real motivations behind the NRA's tantrums. This is an election year, and Senators who support Dr. Murthy are likely to find themselves the target of the NRA's fear-mongering tactics. Sadly, the appeasement and/or approval of a few loud, moneyed extremists from the gun lobby is more valued in the Senate than the voices of families devastated by gun violence or the knowledge compiled by health care providers and researchers.
Lawmakers in Washington have created a ridiculous conundrum of whose endorsement matters more when hiring a Surgeon General: the NRA, or experts in medicine and public health? To this nonsensical question I have a follow-up query: What kind of doctor would get the NRA's stamp of approval? Because any doctor who disagrees with the fact that guns pose a threat to health will not have credibility with the medical or public health community, and would be a disgrace to the title of Surgeon General. Dr. Murthy has acquiesced to staying silent on the subject of gun safety if he earns that position. But our country should not expect that of him, as guns are expected to exceed vehicles as preventable causes of death in the coming years.
This year the public health community celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Surgeon General's report on the health consequences of smoking. Over the decades since then, we have made strong progress in reducing smoking-related illnesses like cancer and heart disease for millions of Americans. This was not accomplished by seeking the approval or permission of the tobacco industry. If we are going to make America safe from gun violence and firearm injuries, then we must stand up to the NRA, ignore their fear-mongering, and heed the advice of health care professionals like Dr. Vivek Murthy and the dozens of organizations endorsing him to be our Surgeon General.
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