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Another NRA victim [Editorial]

Learning more about the causes of injury and death and recommending policies that might lengthen people's lives has long been the mission of the public health community. Under those circumstances, it's hardly surprising that those in the field are concerned not only about viruses and infectious agents but also about firearm-related injuries and deaths.

For years, doctors have been looking at gun violence, the nature of the injuries it causes and the policies that might prevent it. This is strictly mainstream stuff. The American Medical Association has long expressed concerns in this area and endorsed the assault weapons ban, limiting gun magazines and improving access to mental health services. The AMA has more than 200,000 physician members, making it by far the largest medical society in the country.

Dr. Vivek Hallegere Murthy appears to espouse those same views, and that's exactly what's gotten him in trouble. His nomination to become President Barack Obama's next surgeon general is now considered in serious jeopardy because he has not only suggested guns are a health issue but once declared on social media after the Newtown tragedy that he was tired of elected officials playing politics with guns because "they're scared of the NRA."

That's only shocking if one is still shocked that Mr. Obama was elected president of the United States. Most sensible people are tired of the political games, too. Public opinion surveys have repeatedly found that a majority of Americans believe in stricter regulations on gun sales and other reasonable forms of gun control like background checks and safety training.

Dr. Murthy, a Boston internist, isn't exactly a loose cannon on the issue either. In his February confirmation hearing, he testified under oath that he doesn't plan to use the bully pulpit of his office to favor gun control, preferring instead to focus on such issues as obesity, smoking and mental illness.

Nor can anyone claim he isn't qualified for the job. Dr. Murthy got into Harvard at age 16 and got his medical degree at Yale. A first generation immigrant from Florida, he's an American success story having worked in private practice, medical research and health care advocacy. He founded an international organization promoting HIV/AIDS youth education while he was still a medical student.

That Dr. Murthy supported the Affordable Care Act and Mr. Obama's candidacy may irk some Republicans, but surely both positions would be expected of any surgeon general nominee in this administration. Would anyone in the Senate seriously expect Mr. Obama to nominate an Obamacare foe or a Mitt Romney supporter for the job?

Clearly, it is opposition from the National Rifle Association that has created the uncertainty surrounding the nomination. The organization has promised that a vote for Dr. Murthy will be regarded negatively in "scoring" of U.S. Senate candidates. And that appears to have been enough to send some Red State Democratic senators running for cover. It is these gutless Democrats, and not Republican opposition, that has derailed the nominee.

That a well-qualified doctor holding mainstream views on gun control that are shared by the nation's largest physician group can be so pilloried by the NRA (and its willing accomplices on talk radio and the conservative media) as to be disqualified from public service ought to be a concern to all Americans. And that Democrats, who not long ago changed the Senate filibuster rule to facilitate the confirmation process, appear powerless to do anything about it is truly outrageous.

Is the only solution to nominate someone who has never expressed any misgivings about unregulated gun ownership? If so, that person probably isn't much of a doctor. More than 100,000 people are shot, on average, every year in the U.S. That amounts to about 289 people each day, of which 86 are killed, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. For any public health professional to ignore such carnage amounts to medical malpractice.

What a shame if Dr. Murthy ends up as another notch on the NRA's gun belt, particularly for a nation that desperately needs to address gun violence. Of course, it's what we've come to expect from an organization that opposes even using federal dollars to research gun violence, but it's disappointing that more fair-minded senators and others in Washington won't stand up to such bullying, particularly given the lives at stake.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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