Key doctors group faces political risks on guns

Greg Nash

The American Medical Association (AMA), the nation’s most prominent doctors’ group, is putting its muscle behind efforts to pass gun violence legislation in Congress, highlighting their advocacy on one of the country’s most politically divisive issues.

This week, with physicians from around the country in Washington for the AMA’s national advocacy conference, the issue is being given a prominent showcase. The group invited Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, to speak on the push for the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, a House Democratic bill that would institute universal background checks.

“I am just over the moon in regard to your position on gun violence prevention,” Thompson told the conference on Tuesday. He thanked the AMA for endorsing his legislation.


“I can’t tell you how helpful your support is. You guys have been fabulous,” Thompson said. 

In recent years, the AMA has become an increasingly vocal advocate for measures to prevent gun violence, dubbing it a “public health crisis” in June 2016 and pushing for doctors to take a more visible role on the issue, including discussing it with patients.

The group called for a ban on assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and supported buyback programs at last year’s advocacy conference.

That advocacy on gun violence is expected to intensify as newly empowered House Democrats make moving legislation a top priority. 

The group does weigh in on a wide range of health care issues. It opposed the CVS-Aetna merger, pushed for measures to address the opioid crisis and high health care costs, and criticized a Trump administration proposal that critics said weakened protections for transgender people.

But the AMA’s stance on guns carries its own political risks and tensions with the broader medical community.

For many, the AMA’s advocacy on gun violence was seen as surprising. Others pointed to the AMA’s structure, which allows its members to bring up resolutions for action through committees, as encouraging that advocacy.


The group, established in 1847, is seen as the umbrella group for the nation’s doctors, and includes a broad membership. Many members who practice medical specialties are also members of other doctor groups. 

Peggy Tighe, a principal at Powers Pyles Sutter & Verville and former AMA lobbyist, said the group faced internal calls to act on the issue.

“They must be responding to enormous pressure from their membership to engage in this space,” Tighe said. “They are a very democratic, with a small ‘d,’ organization that seeks to be responsive to its membership.”

The AMA is funded by membership dues, which vary depending on whether a member is a medical student, resident, or a practicing or retired physician. It has about 250,000 members.

Tighe also highlighted the political risks of supporting the background checks bill.

“It is still a political football, gun control, on Capitol Hill,” said Tighe. “It’s a brave thing they’re doing, and yes, they’re going to get some detractors.”

While the bill is likely to pass the Democratic House, it faces an uphill climb in the GOP Senate.

Thompson told the AMA conference Tuesday that the bill has 232 co-authors, including Democrats and Republicans, and that it is expected to pass out of committee and onto the House floor. AMA members in the audience applauded.

Thompson also told attendees “don’t be shy” when they call senators to lobby for the bill. 

Selling Republicans on the bill will be a challenge. Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), who is also a physician, opposes Thompson’s bill.

“Rep. DesJarlais is a doctor and strong Second Amendment supporter who believes current law should be fully enforced. He opposes H.R. 8. The bill would deprive law-abiding American citizens of their right to bear arms, treating them like criminals, and do virtually nothing to prevent real criminals from obtaining firearms,” DesJarlais spokesman Brendan Thomas told The Hill.

As medical groups like the AMA step up their advocacy on gun issues, they’ve increasingly faced blowback.

In November, the National Rifle Association (NRA) criticized the American College of Physicians, a group representing doctors of internal medicine, for taking a stance on gun control.

“Everyone has hobbies. Some doctors’ collective hobby is opining on firearms policy,” the NRA wrote. The association added on Twitter, “Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane.”

While the AMA has had support from some other groups such as the American College of Physicians, other organizations have been reluctant to jump into the gun debate. 

“Their policy just doesn’t reflect our organization’s current policy on the topic,” Katie Orrico, director of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons’s Washington, D.C., office, told The Hill. 

Orrico said the group had supported legislation in the past. “When it comes to firearms policy, the neurosurgical national medical organizations, did, way back when, support the [Handgun Violence Prevention Act].”

But Orrico also highlighted the desire among many medical groups to move cautiously on the gun debate to avoid inflaming divisions among members.

“We appreciate that the AMA policy setting process is democratic and their policy represents ongoing debate for many years to shape their views and it represents the majority views of those individuals who have the authority,” Orrico said. “We respect that process.”

The American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) leans more toward AMA’s ideology.

“AAOS advocates for firearm safety and research concerning gun violence, education, and injury prevention. We recognize that the issue of gun control can be a personal matter for our members and the public, and we support meaningful dialogue around firearm violence reduction,” Wilford K. Gibson, the group’s council on advocacy chairman, told The Hill. “We respect the AMA’s decision to have Rep. Thompson speak and will take any strategies presented which align with our goals back to our organization for discussion.”

For the AMA, gun violence is only one of many issues of importance for the group. It has also been active on addressing the opioid crisis and health care costs. And the group invited other lawmakers to speak on a wide array of issues at the advocacy conference, including Reps. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), who couldn’t make it due to the late Rep. John Dingell’s (D-Mich.) funeral. 

On Wednesday, Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) and Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) will speak.

Managing their advocacy on gun issues and other priorities could be a challenge for the group.

Tighe said the AMA faced a tough path in addressing such a hot-button issue.

“I hope that they take it up in a way where it’s a sophisticated approach to policy. It shouldn’t be black or white, guns or no guns,” Tighe said. “It sounds like what they’re doing with Mike Thompson is trying to have a moderate, reasonable position along the lines of protecting the right to own guns while also trying to protect public safety.”

Thompson stressed at the conference on Tuesday that he is a moderate voice.

“I’m a gun owner. I support the Second Amendment,” the lawmaker said. 

But Tighe stilled acknowledged the political pitfalls for the AMA.

“I think that’s the balance they’re trying to strike, and it’s going to be tough for them.”

Tags American Medical Association Brad Wenstrup Gun control John Dingell Lamar Alexander Mike Thompson

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