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JOAN VENNOCHI

How the NRA thwarted a good doctor

Dr. Vivek Murthy’s surgeon general nomination was blocked.

Associated press

Dr. Vivek Murthy’s surgeon general nomination was blocked.

The editors of the New England Journal of Medicine last week accused the National Rifle Association of political blackmail because of the group’s efforts to block the nomination of Dr. Vivek Murthy as surgeon general.

While they were at it, the medical journal’s editors should have pointed out the political cowardice of those in Congress prepared to cave in to NRA pressure. They came close, but ultimately couched their criticism, instead calling the reluctance of at least 10 Senate Democrats to vote for Murthy “a demonstration of just how much political power our legislators have ceded to the NRA.”

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In February, a bipartisan group of senators approved Murthy’s nomination and forwarded it to the floor for a full vote. Yet, despite stellar credentials, Murthy’s nomination is on hold and probably doomed because of personal views he has expressed on gun control.

One particular tweet by Murthy from 2012 “haunts” the nominee, according to David Weigel of Slate. In it, the physician wrote he was “tired of politicians playing politics w/guns, putting lives at risk b/c they’re scared of NRA. Guns are a health care issue.”

His tweet was prescient, since a group of Senate Democrats who are scared of the NRA is playing politics with guns — to Murthy’s disadvantage. Not surprising, several Democrats in this group are currently campaigning for a new term, including Mark Begich of Alaska, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and John Walsh of Montana. All four represent states where anti-gun control sentiments are strong.

These senators fear that opposition from the NRA could cost them their seats. But what’s the point of holding onto them, if they don’t have the courage to stand up to the gun lobby and vote to confirm Murthy’s nomination? Instead, they prefer to turn themselves into political eunuchs, spouting empty rhetoric that is never matched by the only action that matters — a vote on the Senate floor.

The counterargument is, of course, that if Democrats lose control the Senate, they lose any chance to advance their agenda. Also, Congress is allegedly a place of compromise, so lawmakers have to give to get. But when it comes to issues like gun control, we never see any compromise by the political right. Why should the political left always be the side to give up its principles? Or maybe it just doesn’t really have any.

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Last April, after the shooting massacre of 20 schoolchildren and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School only a few months earlier, Senate Democrats helped kill a bipartisan compromise to expand background checks for gun buyers and to ban high-capacity gun magazines. Later that year, Democrats abandoned all efforts to pass any gun control legislation. At the time, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told a pro-gun-control group that he was “almost certain” the matter would be visited “some time next year.”

Next year is here, and what’s almost certain is that the NRA is about to claim another victory. This one has nothing to do with proposed legislation. It crosses a new line, calling upon senators to reject Murthy because of “the likelihood he would use the office of surgeon general to further his preexisting campaign against gun ownership.”

At his confirmation hearing, Murthy testified that gun control advocacy would not be his platform. He wants to focus on obesity. Yet the NRA ginned up a campaign against him on the basis of what the gun lobby considers his “radical” personal views. They include support for an assault weapons ban and limits on ammunition sales.

Unlike some of President Obama’s picks for ambassadorships, Murthy has every qualification Americans should want for the position of surgeon general. The child of parents who immigrated from India, he was educated at Harvard and Yale. He practices medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He was one of the founders and the current president of Doctors for America, an organization dedicated to broadening access to health care. He has served on a presidential advisory group and founded a nonprofit organization working on HIV prevention and education.

But all that means nothing up against a tweet that only underscores the truth.

When fired at a person, guns are bad for one’s health.

Apparently that’s such a powerful message, the NRA is determined to fight it with everything it has — and the NRA’s arsenal includes a group of terrified Democrats.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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