On Obama's Surgeon General Nominee, It's Medical Experts Vs. Discredited Gun Zealots

Gun researcher John Lott, an economist well known for his thoroughly discredited “More Guns, Less Crime” theory, is the latest member of right-wing media to offer baseless attacks on surgeon general nominee Vivek Murthy. According to Lott, one of the “good reasons” to oppose Murthy is that he supports doctors advising parents to safely store firearms so they are inaccessible to children.

In recent weeks Murthy has come under attack from the National Rifle Association and its allies in conservative media because, like the rest of the medical community, he believes gun violence is a public health concern. Murthy has said his concern about gun violence stems from his experiences as a doctor, but has also said that he would not “use the Surgeon General's office as a bully pulpit for gun control,” and instead would make his top priority “obesity prevention.”

In his latest column for FoxNews.com, Lott offered yet more baseless attacks on Murthy.

Seizing on a 2013 letter that Murthy's organization Doctors for America authored after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Lott expressed concern that Murthy's group “has advocated that physicians question parents about their gun ownership and counsel them not to own guns or always to store them locked up.” This type of doctor-patient counseling is non-controversial and aims to prevent gun accidents involving children. The practice is also protected by the First Amendment and attempts to regulate doctors' speech have been struck down as unconstitutional.

Finding a government conspiracy in Murthy's nomination, Lott also argued that Doctors for America's support for allowing doctors to document gun ownership means that doctors could forward this information to the government as a “way of registering guns.”

Turning back to the topic of gun safety, Lott wrote that if Murthy is “really worried about children's safety,” he should focus on other dangers to children including “a swimming pool, chemicals and medications, bathtubs, water buckets, bicycles, cars and items that can cause suffocation.”

This argument is premised on the baseless assumption that Murthy has privileged discussing safe gun practices over other safety concerns. But as the Doctors for America letter cited by Lott notes, “One of our most important tasks as health care providers is to counsel our patients about how to take care of themselves and prevent disease and injury. We counsel patients about tobacco cessation, educate them about diet, and remind them to wear seatbelts and sunscreen.”

Although Lott is not a credible source to discuss research about guns -- his own research has been undermined by coding errors, he has been caught manipulating his own data to protect his conclusions, and he has faced allegations of data fabrication -- he then turned to statistics to attack the notion that gun accidents involving children are a topic worthy of a doctor's attention.

Citing data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Lott wrote, “Accidental gun deaths involving children are especially horrible, but they are fortunately rare.” Defining “rare” is subjective, but it is worth noting that Mother Jones used news reports to identify 84 children aged 12 and under who died in gun accidents in a one-year period in 2012-2013. The New York Times has reported that official figures on gun accidents involving children are undercounted “because of idiosyncrasies in how such deaths are classified by the authorities.” Relative to other nations, accidental gun deaths involving children are not rare in the United States, where the CDC found children are nine times more likely to die in accidents compared to other high-income nations.*

Lott also claimed that “most cases” of gun accidents “for those under 10 involved adults firing the gun, not children getting a hold of their parent's guns.” However, according to Mother Jones, in 64 of the 84 fatal gun accidents a child pulled the trigger, killing themselves or another child. In 10 of 84 cases a parent or guardian pulled the trigger.

In a final dubious claim, Lott wrote that “states that have mandated that people lock up their guns didn't see a reduction in accidental gun deaths or suicides for children or teenagers,” citing his own research on the topic. But according to three studies published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, safe storage laws were associated with reductions in youth accidents and suicides.**

In contrast to the unfounded attacks Murthy has faced from conservative media, actual medical experts have risen to his defense. Before the NRA started its smear campaign, Murthy already enjoyed wide support from a plethora of medical organizations including the American Public Health Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Cancer Society, American Diabetes Association, and American Heart Association.

Now some of Murthy's supporters are coming to his defense and pointing out the absurdity of the arguments against his confirmation. An editorial from The New England Journal of Medicine noted, “The NRA opposes Murthy solely on the grounds that he has advocated reasonable and mainstream forms of gun regulation,” and, “Given that there are more than 30,000 firearm deaths in the United States each year, Murthy's views on potential safeguards are unsurprising.” The editorial also argued, “By obstructing the President's nomination of Vivek Murthy as surgeon general, the NRA is taking its single-issue political blackmail to a new level.”

In a guest column for Boston's NPR news station, two doctors and one doctor in training wrote, “As physicians, we are appalled that a candidate of such high caliber -- with impeccable credentials, a well-earned reputation as a 'doctor's doctor' and formidable experience in management and leadership -- could be derailed for a moderate position on gun violence that aligns with the vast majority of America's health professionals.”

Other doctors have commented to NPR that "[t]he surgeon general should not have to be an outlier, someone who doesn't follow the current recommendations and current science," and, “It's a ridiculous attack to claim that any doctor is an anti-gun radical for holding mainstream views and could risk disqualifying entire swaths of physicians.”

*This figure is dated because of the NRA's largely successful effort dating to the 1990s to prevent the CDC from researching gun violence.

** This blog has been updated to correct an erroneous link.