Politics & Policy

The Surgeon General’s Gun Problem

Vivek Murthy testifies on Capitol Hill.
In his confirmation hearing, he promised he wouldn’t preach gun control, but his record suggests he might not keep his word.

Will America’s new surgeon general preach for gun control, as three of his predecessors did? Early signs nurture cautious optimism that he won’t, but nagging doubts remain. Two days after his confirmation, the website of Dr. Vivek Murthy’s eagerly progressive organization Doctors for America (formerly Doctors for Obama) was updated to reflect his new status as America’s doctor. The advocacy group’s multi-page gun-control campaign was scrubbed from the home page and buried in a menu that doesn’t even mention firearms (click on the “Learn” dropdown menu heading). And Murthy promised wary senators during his February Senate-confirmation hearing (at 50:54 in this video) that he would not use his new position as a bully pulpit for gun control.

Still, one wonders. What else would he say to a room full of legislators who know from experience not to tangle with gun owners? And the Doctors for America website leaves no doubt at all what Murthy would like to see happen to gun owners. Let’s take a look at some of the main goals of the group Murthy co-founded:

1. Remove military-style guns and ammunition that are designed to be able to kill large numbers of people quickly. There may be a place in war for such weapons, but they represent a threat to public safety in our neighborhoods. . . .  Specific approaches should include: A federal ban on the sale of assault weapons and ammunition — to stop weapons from being added to the existing stock.

For a doctor as dedicated to rigorous scientific method as Murthy claimed to be in his confirmation hearing, he seems singularly unconcerned with the facts about modern sporting rifles. These rifles, as Murthy and everyone else should know by now, have become the standard type of rifle for hunting, sport, and self-protection in America. He must know that in 1994 the public went along with the Clinton administration’s Federal Assault Weapons Ban, championed by former surgeon general Joycelyn Elders. But because the promised crime-stopping benefits of the law proved questionable at best, Congress allowed the law to sunset in 2004.

It was known even when the ban was enacted that rifles of any kind, including so-called assault weapons, account for less than 3 percent of murders, and that banning them was purely symbolic. By advocating a repeat of this massive failure, Murthy indicates either that he is ignorant of it or that he simply doesn’t care that it failed.

Murthy’s Doctors for America letter to Congress continues, listing its second goal:

2. Strengthen safety measures and regulations for guns used for hunting, sport, and self-protection. . . . Specific approaches should include: Universal background checks and licenses for anyone purchasing guns and ammunition.

Again, Murthy seems undeterred by President Obama’s spectacularly embarrassing failure only last year to get mandatory background checks passed. Murthy even wants to go a huge step further than background checks and mandate licensing, a possibly unconstitutional measure and one that is certainly a non-starter politically.

And here is Doctors for America’s next stated goal:

3. Remove prohibitions and barriers that keep health professionals from protecting our patients from harm. . . .  Specific approaches should include: Prohibit laws preventing physicians from discussing gun safety with patients.

Doctors for America is still trying to trying to promote the erroneous notion that the legislature wants to prevent doctor-patient discussions of gun safety. That was not the intent of the Firearms Owners’ Privacy Act. The intent of this bill, which the legislature approved, was to stop doctors from invading their patients’ privacy to push anti-gun politics. The public-health gun-prohibition faction is still in a state of angry disbelief that Florida’s legislature prohibits doctors from advocating gun control in their exam rooms. Oddly, these medical gun-control zealots have never explained why they believe doctors are at all qualified to advise patients about guns, nor have they so much as acknowledged proven firearm-safety-education programs, such as the NSSF’s Project ChildSafe or the NRA’s Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program.

The leaders of medical organizations long ago and with much fanfare kicked off a crusade for gun control. The centerpiece of their agenda is official policy urging doctors to use patient visits as an opportunity to preach that guns are bad and that patients should get rid of theirs. Despite resistance from patients, leading to such roadblocks as Florida’s law and its recent affirmation in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Doctors for America wants to continue pressing our medical professionals into service as gun-control drones.

No one who has followed the public-health gun-prohibition movement should be surprised by Murthy’s hoplophobic leanings. The tradition of surgeon generals’ pushing gun control goes back as far as C. Everett Koop, who served under Ronald Reagan. Considered very conservative on most issues, Koop nevertheless shared the academic elites’ view of gun ownership. He advocated universal gun registration and licensing, and decried “a vast lobby of special interests [that] supports the utterly unfettered ownership and use of firearms.”

As did Murthy, Surgeons General Joycelyn Elders (under Clinton) and David Satcher (under Clinton and G. H. W. Bush) both went on record fuming against the NRA — Elders in her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution on March 23, 1994, and Satcher in a Washington Post editorial on November 5, 1995. Both came from public-health backgrounds, a milieu that considers gun-control advocacy a pillar of its mission. Murthy, also nominated by a liberal president, brushes off any opposition to his agenda as uninformed or worse. Nor, as he famously tweeted, is he patient with the political process when it gets in the way of his wish to ban guns. That’s curious in a doctor whose proposed remedies are nothing but bare politics.

And all of this is entirely consistent with the public-health community’s gun-control mission since its inception in the late 1980s. They carry on with a self-satisfied doggedness in their convictions despite contrary experience, and they are impatient with legitimate opponents who also happen to constitute a political majority. American gun owners can hope that Dr. Murthy was telling the truth when he renounced gun-control advocacy. But given his history, they should be skeptical.

— Timothy Wheeler, M.D., is director of Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership, a project of the Second Amendment Foundation.

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