Don’t Let the Gun Lobby Keep Us from Having a Surgeon General

SWV-TopDocNowThe 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.

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Science Under the Rug: How Government and Industry Hide Research on Gun Violence

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Research into the causes of gun violence is critical to developing policies aimed at reducing this form of violence and making our communities safer.  Only by understanding the causes of gun violence can we better address this public safety issue that results in the deaths of 30,000 Americans every year.

Attempts to suppress and obscure science are increasingly common features of many public policy battles – especially around tobacco, evolution, climate change, guns, and abortion. Legislators have forced doctors to tell patients falsehoods about their pregnancies and abortion and compelled teachers to mislead students about evolution. At the NRA’s behest, federal funds for gun violence research were eliminated, and basic data on gun violence cannot be gathered. Meanwhile, Big Tobacco and fossil fuel producers are the most prominent, but hardly the only, industries which have conspired to obscure research and attack researchers who reveal their products’ dangers. Across the board, science is being obfuscated, misinterpreted, and ignored in efforts to keep the facts out of the hands of the public.

In June, the Law Center’s Executive Director Robyn Thomas joined a panel of researchers from across disciplines at Netroots Nation to discuss the history of research on gun violence and ways in which that research has been blocked by the gun lobby’s efforts. Below are some of the interesting points outlined at the panel.

The History of Guns and Research

In 1992, the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC) was launched at the Centers for Disease Control, solely to do research on injury causation in America. Within it, the Division of Violence Prevention set out to investigate and address those injuries considered “intentional.”

Only a year later, the results of one of the first studies funded by CDC was published the New England Journal of Medicine.  The article by Arthur Kellerman, et al, entitled “Gun Ownership as a Risk Factor for Homicide in the Home” found that keeping a gun in the home was strongly and independently associated with an increased risk of homicide.  The article concluded that rather than confer protection, guns kept in the home are associated with an increased risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance.

Kellerman clearly stated that the studies weren’t intended as briefs for gun control, but simply to provide information to help people make rational, evidence-based decisions about whether to keep a weapon at home. The NRA was outraged by the results, and spent several years campaigning for the elimination of the NCIPC, finally succeeding in getting language included in 1996 in the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Bill to strip the NCIPC funding on gun injury research.

How the NRA Succeeded in Repressing Research on Gun Violence, The Dickey Amendment:

In 1996, at the behest of the NRA’s self-described “point person” Congressman Jay Dickey, the NRA simultaneously got language in the Appropriations bill stripping the CDC of their entire budget for firearm injury research ($2.6million) and included a provision explicitly forbidding any CDC funding “to advocate or promote gun control”.

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Senate Judiciary Hearing on Gun Violence:
An Important Step Forward for America

PHOTO CREDIT: REUTERS / Larry Downing

Today marked an important step forward for our country, as the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee met to begin the discussion in Congress about gun violence in America. At the hearing, Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly advocated for smart solutions, like requiring background checks with all gun sales. Other panelists, however, suggested that we simply need more guns in our schools and in our communities.

The good news is that the Judiciary Committee reports to YOU. As panelist Baltimore County Chief of Police Jim Johnson, Chair of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence, said today:

Generations of Americans, including our youngest ones, are depending on you to ensure they will grow up and fulfill their roles in the great human experience. None of us can fail them.

I urge you to follow the will of the American public and stand with law enforcement to enact these common-sense public safety measures. 

It is time for the Senate Judiciary Committee to hear from you. Tell them that we need these sensible measures to keep our communities safe from gun violence:

  1. a criminal background check with every gun sale;
  2. a ban on weapons of war like assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines; and
  3. a gun trafficking law to make it easier for law enforcement to prosecute criminals.

Call the Senate Judiciary Committee and tell them that you support these smart solutions to curb gun violence now. Then share this post with your friends and family.

Majority Office
Phone: 202-224-7703

Minority Office 
Phone: 202-224-5225

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