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Updated Jun 25, 2024, 2:04pm EDT
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Semafor Signals

US surgeon general declares gun violence a public health crisis, a politically polarizing move

Insights from The New York Times, Politico, and The Associated Press

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A view shows firearms at the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Indianapolis, Indiana, on April 15, 2023.
Evelyn Hockstein/REUTERS
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US surgeon general Vivek Murthy declared gun violence a public health crisis on Tuesday, the first time the nation’s top doctor has issued such an urgent message on firearms.

The declaration reflected the fact that deaths caused by guns hit a three-decade high in 2021, driven by upticks in both homicides and suicides. Murthy called on Congress to pass a gun control law to ban automatic rifles and introduce universal background checks for anyone purchasing a firearm.

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“I know it’s been polarizing and I know it’s been politicized, but if we can see [firearm violence] as a public health issue, we can come together and implement a public health solution,” Murthy said in a CBS interview.

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Other public health crises provide a roadmap, Murthy says

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Sources:  
The New York Times, CNN

Murthy pointed to past successful surgeon-general campaigns, like the multi-pronged effort to curb smoking, as proof that the office can shift the national conversation on guns. “There wasn’t one single strategy that ultimately worked with tobacco,” Murthy said. “That’s what I’m thinking here, too.” But some experts are skeptical about solving the gun crisis through a public-health approach. Framing gun violence as a health issue fails to address its deep roots as a facet of political identity, one expert told The New York Times. But Murthy said taking the conversation out of politics is the point.

Despite strong wording, recommendations aren’t enforceable

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Sources:  
USA Today, NPR, Politico

The public health declaration is a first of its kind on gun violence and draws attention to the issue, but its recommendations aren’t enforceable. It’s unclear how it might move the needle on attitudes to gun control or legislation, which has long been a political minefield in the US. Top medical organizations, including the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association, have identified gun violence as a public health scourge for years, without much legislative impact. But some researchers say the declaration shows the gun control movement is gaining momentum. “Surgeon general advisories aren’t issued frivolously or frequently,” Politico noted.

Move is ‘war on law-abiding gun owners,’ gun rights groups say

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Sources:  
The Washington Post, The Associated Press

“This is an extension of the Biden Administration’s war on law-abiding gun owners,” said Randy Kozuch, executive director of the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action. Other pro-gun groups echoed the sentiment, with some saying the announcement’s timing — ahead of the 2024 US presidential election — was no coincidence. Murthy has few fans among the powerful gun lobby or Republican lawmakers, many of whom tried to stop his confirmation as surgeon general due to his comments on gun violence. During those hearings, Murthy had said he did not intend to use his position as “a bully pulpit on gun control.”

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