On Wednesday — two years to the day after George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin — Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) placed a hold on President Barack Obama’s nominee for Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, over Murthy’s view that gun violence represents a significant public health threat.
“In his efforts to curtail Second Amendment rights, Dr. Murthy has continually referred to guns as a public health issue on par with heart disease and has diminished the role of mental health in gun violence,” wrote Paul in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“As a physician, I am deeply concerned that he has advocated that doctors use their position of trust to ask patients, including minors, details about gun ownership in the home… Dr. 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.”
But Paul is actually out of step with most physicians. The idea that gun violence is a danger to public health is utterly uncontroversial among doctors’ groups, academic institutions that focus on public health, and children’s safety advocates. Although Paul criticizes Murthy’s position that physicians and pediatricians should ask patients about the presence of guns in their households, the American Medical Association (AMA) adopted a resolution in 2011 officially opposing any law that bars doctors from having open conversations about gun safety and the risks of having firearms in a household with their patients.
In fact, just yesterday, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued new guidelines recommending that households with children who are diagnosed with depression should remove guns and ammunition from their homes entirely.
The AAP has long taken a firm stance on the danger that gun violence poses for children. “This should not be a political issue. Gun violence is a public health issue that profoundly affects children and their families,” said AAP president Dr. Thomas K. McInerny in a letter to Congress urging robust gun safety legislation on the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre. “We know what works — strong laws to enforce background checks and safe storage. But our elected leaders need to find a way forward to protect our children.”
It’s not hard to see why the group feels so strongly on the issue. According to the Centers for Disease Control, homicide and suicide are two of the top three leading causes of death among 15 to 24 year-olds, and the vast majority of those these deaths are facilitated by firearms. More than 68 percent of all homicides in America are gun-related, and more Americans kill themselves with guns than every other method combined. Gun violence is set to surpass car accidents as the number one killer of young people by 2015 if current trends hold.
One of the most extensive studies on gun injuries and deaths, conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health’s David Hemenway and published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, left no room for speculation when it comes to guns and public health. “[F]or most contemporary Americans, the scientific studies suggest that the health risk of a gun in the home is greater than the benefit,” read the report. “There are no credible studies that indicate otherwise.”
And gun violence may actually be an even bigger public health problem than current studies indicate. That’s because the gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association (NRA), pushed through a package of legislation in 1996 imposing a virtual freeze on federal funding for gun violence-related research. President Obama ended that ban in the wake of Sandy Hook — but experts say there’s still far too little funding appropriated by Congress to entice more detailed research in the area.
Paul argues that focusing on addressing mental illness is a more effective way to curb gun deaths. But behavioral disorders are almost exclusively a risk factor for suicide, and not for other types of violence. In fact, the vast majority — up to 96 percent by some counts — of gun violence and violence generally committed in the U.S. are perpetrated by people with no mental disorders.
As it turns out, previous Republican Surgeon General appointees also supported the notion that gun violence is a pressing public health issue. C. Everett Koop, a former pediatric surgeon and Surgeon General under President Ronald Reagan, wrote an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1992 entitled “Time to Bite the Bullet Back.” The essay argued that gun violence is, in fact, a public health problem and should be addressed along those lines.