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RedBlueAmerica: Should gun policy halt President Obama's choice for surgeon general?

Is gun usage a health issue? Could Dr. Vivek Murthy, as surgeon general, threaten gun rights? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, debate the issue.


Posted on March 31, 2014 at 6:30 a.m.

The National Rifle Association is flexing its political muscle again — this time in opposition to President Obama's nominee to be Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy. Why? Murthy believes that guns are a health issue, and has advocated gun safety measures like an assault weapons ban, mandatory safety training, and limits on ammunition.

Is gun usage a health issue? Could Murthy threaten gun rights? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, debate the issue.

BEN BOYCHUK: Gun ownership isn't a disease. It's a constitutional right.

Calling crime a disease sounds like the stuff of a bad Sylvester Stallone movie, but it's closer to reality than people might think. Criminologists often speak the language of "epidemiology" — a medical science that looks at the occurrence, spread and possible control of disease.

But to describe guns and gun ownership as a "health care issue" isn't science or medicine. It's simply politics.

Traditionally, authorities respond "public health threats" through quarantines and other measures designed to contain the problem. If guns were a threat to public health, what would quarantine look like? Something like a ban, most likely.

Vivek Murthy's credentials as a physician are certainly impressive: admitted to Harvard at 16, graduate of Yale medical school, founder of a nonprofit focused on AIDS research and treatment, Harvard med school professor.

But when it comes to politics and public policy, Dr. Murthy's ideas aren't especially different from those of a garden-variety liberal newspaper columnist _ or most Harvard professors, come to think of it.

President Obama's nomination of Murthy as Surgeon General follows his 2013 executive order empowering the Centers for Disease Control to resume its controversial research on guns and violence.

But Congress cut the CDC's gun research budget nearly 20 years ago for good reason. Researchers were engaged in what could be charitably described as "political science." The CDC's former director of gun research once told the Washington Post his goal was to foster a public perception of guns as "dirty, deadly — and banned."

"Government-funded gun research was openly biased in the 1990s," explained Dr. Timothy Wheeler, a retired surgeon and director of Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership, a project of the Second Amendment Foundation.

Researchers, Wheeler wrote last year at National Review Online, "unabashedly supported gun bans, used CDC funds to advocate strict gun control, and poured millions of taxpayer dollars into funding 'research' that was in fact advocacy — thinly disguised medical-journal hit pieces against gun ownership."

Murthy is very much of that tradition, masking political advocacy as straightforward public health advice. As Surgeon General, Murthy would be overseeing the CDC. He may be a good and compassionate doctor, but he shouldn't be directing public policy.

JOEL MATHIS: Gun ownership is a constitutional right — and also a potent threat to public health. If public research about firearms has been "anti-gun," it's probably because reality itself is anti-gun. And as the controversy over Dr. Vivek Murthy shows, the NRA will choose guns over reality every time.

Reality: Guns are not a benign tool. When used as designed, they injure and kill. That is their only purpose. Period. In that sense, guns are little different from rat poison, though rat poison is usually sold with a warning attached.

Reality: Guns do an efficient job of working as designed, at least in the United States. There are roughly 30,000 gun-related homicides and suicides a year in the country.

Reality: In 2010 nearly two-thirds of those deaths — more than 19,000 fatalities — were suicides. The FBI that same year recorded just 230 justifiable homicides, suggesting that self-obliteration is a much, much more common use of firearms in this country than self-defense. Generally, we try to limit access to easy self-harm — in San Francisco, for example, they're about to build a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Reality: Research has shown that keeping a gun in the home actually increases one's chance of death, usually at the hands of a family member or "intimate acquaintance."

Despite all that, it's possible that there are good, constructive reasons to possess a gun. (Just as there are good, constructive reasons to own rat poison.) It's just that the NRA chokes off a fair conversation (and even scientific) at every opportunity, and construes even common-sense restrictions — like requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen guns — as "anti-gun" legislation instead of "pro-responsible gun ownership." And it punishes legislators accordingly.

Silencing critics and stifling research doesn't indicate that the NRA is very confident reality will bear out its view of the world. It's an elevation of ideology over the plain facts. Too bad the facts (and their advocates) are losing.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Joel Mathis is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Website: www.facebook.com/benandjoel. They wrote this for McClatchy-Tribune.


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