Surgeon General steps into political fray with gun violence ‘crisis’ designation

June 28, 2024

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has placed himself at the center of the fiercely partisan debate over gun control with his declaration this week that firearm violence in the U.S. is a public health crisis. 

While Democrats applauded the move, which marked the first time a U.S. Surgeon General has issued public health advisory on gun violence, gun rights groups blasted the country’s top doctor. 

“U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s declaration that ‘gun violence’ is a ‘public health crisis’ is nothing short of election-year politicking masquerading in a white lab coat,” the National Shooting Sports Foundation said in a press release. 

Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) called the action an “unconstitutional overreach” and pointed to Murthy’s confirmation hearing in 2021, when he said his “focus” as surgeon general would not be on gun control. 

“Today, Surgeon Murthy abused his power in an attempt to target the Second Amendment,” Rep. Richard Hudson (R-Va.) said on X. “This is yet another attack on YOUR constitutional right to bear arms by the Biden admin, and we WILL NOT allow it.”

Murthy said he hopes to raise awareness of how dire gun violence has become, as well as proposing policy measures to mitigate the frequency and fallout of incidents. 

Democrats and public health organizations welcomed the news. 

“This epidemic has ravaged communities, robbed families of loved ones and made us a global outlier,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said on X

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) wrote, “Gun violence is a public health crisis, and I am glad to see the Surgeon General take this step. The health and safety of our children should not be a partisan issue.” 

Steven Furr, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, praised the action and said doctors have “long understood…the devastating impact firearm violence has on our patients and the communities we serve.”

“The effects of gun violence extend beyond physical health and safety to include mental health and financial impacts,” he added.  

While gun groups blasted the decision, many Republicans were notably silent on Murthy’s move. The top recipients of gun rights campaign donations — including Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) — have all stayed mum since the announcement. And their offices did not respond when reached for comment by The Hill. 

In a statement to The Hill, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) called Murthy’s announcement a “phony public health declaration” meant to “strip law-abiding Americans of their constitutional right to bear arms.”

Stewart Verdery, CEO of the bipartisan lobbying firm Monument Advocacy, theorized that some gun rights proponents on Capitol Hill may not be commenting because “the Surgeon General kind of has the panache of independence and credibility.” 

“It’s not like taking on a politician,” added Verdery, a former Assistant Secretary for Policy and Planning at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 

He said Murthy’s proposals could still filter into races this election cycle. Gun regulation has not been among the top issues for this election cycle but its status a “second tier issue” is subject to change at any moment, said Verdery. 

“It only takes one incident, one mass shooting or something like that, unfortunately, to put it back on the front page,” he said.

He noted that Thursday’s debate could highlight the large divide between the candidates on gun control, especially if Biden “comes out full bore for mass gun regulation” and paints a contrast with Trump, who “has gone way to the right on these issues.”

Murthy’s office maintains that the proposal was informed by available data and the shared experiences of many Americans. 

“The Office of the Surgeon General is an independent office that calls attention to critical public health issues based on scientific evidence. Dr. Murthy has long cared about the impact of firearm violence on the health and well-being of Americans,” a spokesperson for the Surgeon General said in a statement to The Hill. 

“As Surgeon General, he has met with young people across the country, and in recent years, children, teens, their parents, and others have consistently named firearm violence a source of trauma and concern,” they added. 

The declaration itself effectively does little more than raise awareness of the issue of gun violence. Any action, as Murthy stated, will be up to Congress to actualize. 

“These are broad strategies we’ve laid out. The details of the legislative proposal would be up to Congress to put together,” Murthy told The Hill. 

Murthy’s advisory proposes expanding universal background checks on gun purchases to also apply to private sales and gifted firearms; banning assault weapons and large-capacity magazines for civilian use; and treating firearms like consumer products by requiring regulations regarding their safety and warning labels detailing their risk.

Daniel Webster, distinguished scholar for the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solution, said the gun violence say the declaration was “a big deal.”

“It does a very powerful job I think of articulating and delineating with, with data, just the massive way in which gun violence affects our public health and safety,” he said. 

While acknowledging that Murthy sought to frame the proposals as apolitical, Webster said all gun policy is intrinsically political. 

“My view about this is that anything about guns is going to be political and we just have to sort of accept and acknowledge that,” he said. 

“I think that this report will motivate advocates, stakeholders, some policymakers to act and get them some direction on specific things that they can and should do. But other people on the other side of the political spectrum — I suspect some of this will be dismissed.”

Katie Pointer Baney, executive director of the U.S. Concealed Carry Association’s Saving Lives Action Fund, said Murthy’s move would motivate gun rights supporters ahead of November. 

“We are currently working to mobilize a grassroots voter registration effort to empower the voices from every corner of America, and political attacks like this on gun owners only serve to heighten their engagement further this election season,” she said in a statement.