The NRA shoots down a qualified Obama nominee

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

We reported last week that the confirmation of Dr. Vivek Murthy, President Obama’s surgeon general nominee, was in danger because Murthy has advocated gun safety and linked public health to gun violence. Our reporting now appears to be coming true: According to the New York Times, Dr. Murthy’s nomination is unlikely to come up before November if it goes forward at all.

That the National Rifle Association is poised to scuttle the president’s choice for surgeon general is both depressing and absurd.

Murthy’s nomination passed out of the Senate Health Committee with the unanimous support of the committee’s Democrats and even one Republican – Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk. Since then, Murthy has faced increasing opposition from pro-gun senators, right wing media outlets and the NRA. Their stated opposition stems from a letter Murthy signed as a founder of Doctors for America where he advocated gun safety measures including an assault weapons ban, limits on ammunition sales, and mandatory gun safety training. Dr. Murthy has also opposed bans on doctors discussing gun safety in the home with patients.

Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, a likely 2016 presidential contender, has been particularly forceful in his opposition. Paul penned a letter to Majority leader Harry Reid stating that Murthy “has disqualified himself from being surgeon general because of his intent to use that position to launch an attack on Americans' right to own a firearm under the guise of a public health and safety campaign.”

The NRA has also written a letter strongly opposing the Murthy nomination and announced it would score the confirmation vote. This means a vote for Murthy would count against lawmakers’ pro-gun ratings, placing maximum pressure on vulnerable red state Democrats.   

Many of these same vulnerable Democrats balked over the nomination of Debo Adegbile to the nation’s top civil rights post since Adegbile once provided legal assistance to convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. Adegbile was not confirmed, and the vulnerable Democrats who did vote for him find themselves in the unenviable position of having cast a tough vote, provided ammunition to their opponents, and still ending up on the losing side. Senate sources tell us that following Adegbile’s defeat and under mounting pressure from pro-gun advocates, Reid is unlikely to ask his caucus to take another tough, and possibly losing vote on Murthy’s nomination.

When we first reported on this story, my msnbc colleague Toure called the backlash to Murthy’s nomination “Gun McCarthyism.” He’s right. Good and qualified people can now apparently be deemed unfit for public service and have their careers ruined simply for uttering even the most innocuous comments about gun safety.

It calls to mind what happened last year, when an editor at Guns and Ammo magazine was fired after a backlash from readers and advertisers for writing this innocuous statement: “The fact is, all constitutional rights are regulated, always have been, and need to be.” Guns and Ammo is free to employ whomever it chooses, but the swiftness and velocity of the backlash is indicative of the fact that in the pro-gun community, there can be no nuance and no wavering from an absolutist gospel.

Pro-gun Murthy opponents have painted him as an anti-gun radical. He is nothing of the sort. His views are mainstream, both in the public health community and across the U.S. more broadly. And given the prevalence of gun injury and death in our country, gun safety as a public health issue is an indisputable fact.

If you don’t believe me, ask the American Medical Association, which has advocated for both an assault weapons and high capacity magazine ban. “As individual physicians, our members see first-hand the devastating consequences of gun violence to victims and their families. As a professional community, we must do everything we can, not only to treat the victims and their families, but also to reduce the epidemic of gun violence in our nation, much of which is preventable,” the AMA has written.  

Other leading public health organizations have spoken out in similar ways. Dr. Murthy’s views are not the ones that are radical here.

It is plainly absurd that the NRA would have a say in the selection of our next surgeon general. Murthy has been quite clear that if confirmed, he would focus primarily on the national obesity epidemic. But radical pro-gun sentiment has lost any basis in analysis and rationality.

Senators live in fear of the NRA, whose wrath is unleashed for even the most minor of transgressions. The NRA would have us believe that they are protectors of our Constitutional liberty, but their repression of dissent, retribution against opponents and the imposition of a pure extremist orthodoxy is more reminiscent of Mao than Jefferson. 

The Constitution enshrines the principles of transparency and rigorous debate.  Perhaps we can send a copy to the NRA. I wonder how they’d score the vote if the First Amendment were being ratified in the Senate?