Politics & Policy

How the NRA Defeated Obama's Surgeon General Choice: 4 Blunt Points


Dr. Vivek Hallegere Murthy, President Barack Obama's nominee to be the next U.S. Surgeon General, prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Feb. 4, 2014

Photograph by Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

Dr. Vivek Hallegere Murthy, President Barack Obama's nominee to be the next U.S. Surgeon General, prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Feb. 4, 2014

By all indications, the National Rifle Association and allied gun-rights groups have killed the nomination of Dr. Vivek Murthy to be the next surgeon general. Senate aides are whispering that as many as 10 Democrats would likely vote against Murthy because he supports stricter gun control, according to the New York Times. In response, “the White House is considering delaying a vote … or withdrawing the nomination altogether.” When “the White House” publicly emits that kind of gloom, it’s a signal that the president wants his nominee to withdraw and stanch the political bleeding. Four blunt points on Murthy’s political demise:

1. It’s ludicrous. An accomplished young physician affiliated with a first-rate Boston hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School, Murthy has ample professional qualifications. He has vowed to make fighting obesity his main priority. He also happens to hold standard urban liberal views on firearm regulation. He favors greater restrictions on gun sales and ownership. He uses a common metaphor to equate firearm possession with a viral contagion. One might quibble with some of his opinions. I see problems, for example, with the public health conception of gun issues. (More on that in a moment.) But the surgeon general doesn’t play a significant role in crafting gun policy. It seems preposterous that Murthy’s attitudes toward guns—views roughly similar to those of the twice-elected president—may preclude him from federal office. It would be no less silly if abortion-rights advocates killed a Republican nomination of a distinguished four-star general to be chairman of the Pentagon’s joint chiefs of staff based solely on his opposition to abortion.

2. The Democrats are very, very afraid. Murthy’s vulnerability speaks volumes about Democrats’ weakness going into the midterm elections. Worried about Obama’s shaky poll numbers and voter ambivalence about health-care reform in particular, Democrats face threats of losing Senate seats in pro-gun states such as Alaska, Arkansas, and Louisiana. That Democratic senators from those states are surrendering Murthy’s nomination—and that the White House apparently can’t instill more courage in the ranks—illustrate how panicked the president’s party truly is.

The retreat from Murthy also provides a reminder that liberals’ wishful thinking about the NRA being a “paper tiger” deserves once and for all to be rejected. In a strident letter to senators, the NRA’s chief lobbyist, Chris Cox, called Murthy’s positions on guns “radical” and accused him of backing a “campaign against gun ownership.” In fact, Murthy favors a so-called assault weapons ban and mandatory safety training. His skepticism of civilian gun ownership is based on firsthand experience in hospital emergency rooms, where he has mopped up after bloody firearm violence. The claim that from the surgeon general’s office he’d have even marginal influence on gun policy, let alone implement a “radical” curtailment of gun ownership, seems off-kilter. But no matter how extreme the NRA’s stance, its wrath in pro-gun states must be taken seriously. When the group activates its local affiliates to turn out single-issue voters, they can make a difference in close races.

3. The assault weapons ban continues to haunt the Democrats. In the wake of the December 2012 Newtown (Conn.) elementary school massacre, Obama and Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California made reinstatement of the assault weapons ban their main gun control proposal. Murthy has been an outspoken proponent of the same approach. This has been a mistake, and it has made it easier for the NRA to block Murthy’s nomination.

Demonizing assault weapons—more precisely, military-style semiautomatic rifles—didn’t work in the 1990s. It has almost nothing to do with stopping ordinary street criminals who carry handguns. And it distracts from other, more sensible proposals, such as preventing felons and the mentally ill from having access to any firearms. Liberals reflexively condemn assault weapons as a symbolic flourish, when in fact such guns, absent their large ammunition magazines, are no more lethal than grandpa’s wooden-stock deer rifle. Moreover, no one—not the president, not Senator Feinstein, not Murthy—can plausibly suggest an actual ban, as in the prohibition of the millions of such rifles already in private hands. Such a proposal would require sheriffs in Texas and Idaho and the Dakotas going door-to-door to collect the gear—a prospect that would lead to a lot of sheriffs simply retiring or, worse, civil war.

4. The public health model for guns isn’t as obvious as liberals assume. Murthy endorses a line of analysis popularized in the 1990s that sees gun violence as a disease, with firearms as the contagion. Sounds clever. But politically it’s a losing argument. It fails to appreciate and respect that law-abiding gun owners, and there are many millions of them, do not see themselves as disease vectors. They view guns positively: as practical self-defense tools, as recreational equipment, and as symbols of individualism and self-reliance. One may disagree with or simply fail to understand the positive conception of guns, but adopting the rhetoric and imagery of public health doesn’t resolve the cleavage in American society between those who honor firearms and those who deplore them.

Moreover, the public health model doesn’t capture the thousands of instances each year when gun owners use their weapons to protect themselves. There’s a hot debate about how often the brandishing of a firearm drives off a would-be burglar or rapist. The NRA cites research suggesting 2 million occasions of “defensive gun use.” Anti-gun social scientists think that figure is exaggerated, but even they concede that firearms are probably used for protection 80,000 or 100,000 times a year. For gun owners who place not being a victim above the potential dangers guns may bring into their homes (making suicide easier, enticing curious children), the public health metaphor ignores their deeply felt concerns.

Barrett_190
Barrett is an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. His new book, Law of the Jungle, which tells the story of the Chevron oil pollution case in Ecuador, will be published by Crown in September 2014.

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