Gun lobby’s latest insult to America: A shooting victim’s perspective

How desperately does NRA want to avoid scrutiny of its products and their effects? Here's the newest outrage

Published March 18, 2014 11:44AM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Jim Urquhart)
(Reuters/Jim Urquhart)

If CPAC taught us anything it's that conservatives still consider political correctness to be a grave threat to free expression and informed, equitable policy making. Or at least that they still believe that ranting about political correctness is an effective way to rally dittoheads and other right-wing media consumers.

Here, for instance, is conservative celebrity Ben Carson getting ovation after ovation at CPAC for his extended riff on the evils of political correctness.

It's a big deal on the right! Which is why I fully expect Carson and his phalanx of conservative supporters will ride to the rescue of the National Rifle Association, as it becomes thrall to the scourge of political correctness right before our eyes.

Just kidding! They will do no such thing. That's because they're tribalists, though, and not because the NRA is reluctant to police facts, civil servants and the public discourse for anything that reflects poorly on guns. Quite the contrary.

This week's victim is Dr. Vivek Murthy, a Harvard- and Yale-educated physician whom President Obama nominated to serve as Surgeon General back in November. In non-clinical capacities, his crimes are being an Obama ally and an advocate for more restrictive gun regulations, which means his nomination must be destroyed.

Now, the surgeon general of the United States isn't a gun regulator. And as such Murthy managed to garner the support of one Republican, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., when his nomination cleared the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last month. But Murthy has described gun violence as a public health issue. And for that reason the NRA has taken unusual interest in his nomination, scoring votes for his confirmation against their annual ratings of elected officials, and working NRA members into a panic over the possibility that the nation's top doctor will cite public health concerns to take away their guns.

The gun lobby has a patent on this unique combination of insecurity and opportunism, and they deploy it liberally. So in that sense their position on Murthy's nomination is unsurprising. But it's been less than two weeks since the White House watched a handful of frightened Senate Democrats help Republicans defeat its nominee to run the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. Many of those same Democrats are scared to vote for Murthy. So the White House is "recalibrating" its strategy for confirming Murthy, and I think it's fair to say that his nomination is in serious jeopardy.

And that's a shame. Because the animating objection here isn't about a policy or policies per se. It's about removing firearms from the policy firmament altogether. Making gun scrutiny a breach of political correctness. To the NRA, the idea that firearms might pose a public health risk, or research into the health correlates of gun violence -- anything that could be used to promote gun regulation -- constitute enormous threats, and must be excised from the government.

As it happens, I know a thing or two about the personal and public health costs of gun violence.

I know from experience that when a bullet enters a human body, that body becomes very sick, very fast, and often dies.

In 2010, firearm fatalities were among the four leading mechanisms of injury in the U.S., according to the CDC, along with poisoning and motor vehicle- and fall-related injuries. Together these accounted for 74.7 percent of all injury deaths that year. Nearly 32,000 of those deaths were the result of firearm injuries, comprising an approximately two-to-one split between suicides and homicides. Tens of thousands more didn't die, but incurred humongous one-time or chronic medical costs, which were in many cases passed along to the public.

These are facts everyone knows. Another fact everyone knows is that the Second Amendment establishes a right to own firearms. And the point is, there's no contradiction here. Something can be both constitutionally protected and a public health problem without twisting logic or undermining the foundations of U.S. democracy. But the NRA can't tolerate public officials who acknowledge that.

The lobby's organizing efforts against Murthy have a quotidian quality to them, perhaps because it doesn't take much these days to frighten the subset of gun owners who envision grabbers around every corner into buying more guns. But their actions aren't entirely opportunistic. They are infused with a sense of genuine anxiety. Vis a vis Murthy, the pro-gun right resembles the geocentrist leadership of the Catholic Church silencing Copernicans for insisting that the Earth orbits the Sun. Four centuries later the Church still exists, but at the time its leaders perceived an empirical consensus as a threat to their belief system, so they did what they could to bury it.

If Democrats enable that instinct, they ought to be embarrassed. If the alcohol and tobacco lobbies tried to defeat a surgeon general nominee for acknowledging that drinking and smoking are public health issues, Democrats would laugh them out of the room. By the same token they -- along with the general public, including the gun-owning public -- shouldn't allow the NRA to shield firearms from the kind of scrutiny that attends to other risky products. Otherwise, they're being played for fools.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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