The Surgeon General's deafening silence on gun violence

The Surgeon General's deafening silence on gun violence
© Charlie Archambault

Last week the head of the Association of American Medical Colleges called gun violence a “public health crisis” in America. To address it, Dr. David J. Skorton wrote, “[t]hose of us in the health care field have a central role to play.” His voice adds to the increasing chorus of leading medical organizations, including the American Medical Association, American Public Health Association, American Academy of Family Physicians and the American College of Surgeons, demanding action on the issue.

Yet there is one high-profile figure conspicuously absent from this growing symphony of doctors calling for change: The Surgeon General of the United States. On matters of national public health, we should be able to rely on America’s highest medical authority for guidance. But the individual who occupies that office today, Dr. Jerome Adams, has done nothing to lead our country forward on this issue which claimed an estimated 40,000 lives last year alone.

Gun violence is nowhere to be found in any of Dr. Adams’ list of top priorities. He’s offered no proactive plan to confront it, and he was notably silent in the aftermath of the Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas mass shootings that claimed the lives of 31 people over a single weekend last month

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When asked directly if gun violence is a public health threat in America, he refused to give a yes-or-no answer. He sidestepped it, saying that it “depends by definition on the community that you’re talking about.” He argued hunters who use firearms responsibly don’t view it as a public health concern in their community, while areas where there is a high “presence of guns,” like Baltimore, Md., the threat is evident. 

There’s an obvious problem with that distinction: Thousands of innocent people killed in recent years don’t live anywhere near high-crime areas of the country. And many of them were law abiding, peaceful citizens. They lived in rural towns such as Odessa, Texas, Dayton, Ohio, El Paso – and coastal communities like Virginia Beach, Va. They were children attending school in Newtown, Conn. and Parkland, Fla.

They were at work, going shopping, or enjoying a night on the town. The fact that such a viewpoint is held by our government’s top official charged with preserving and protecting the health of America should concern us all. 

Four of Dr. Adams’ past predecessors — including one Republican — have urged the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to continue researching gun violence research. That’s because the CDC has been effectively blocked from studying the issue and examining ways to prevent it due to an arcane law known as the Dickey Amendment

Dr. Adams has made no attempt to join his former colleagues in calling for more federal dollars to better understand the root causes for gun violence’s rise in America, and what measures we must collectively take to try and stop it. 

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Why has he remained silent? Acknowledging gun violence as an unqualified public health crisis would likely put him in disfavor with the Trump administration. Dr. Adams’ predecessor, Dr. Vivek MurthyVivek Hallegere MurthyThe Surgeon General's deafening silence on gun violence We must act to address gun violence The Hill's Morning Report — Dem ire at Barr intensifies MORE — nominated by President Obama to be the 19th Surgeon General of the U.S. — made that declaration — and it nearly derailed his confirmation before the GOP-controlled U.S. Senate.  

Dr. Murthy’s position didn’t conform with President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrumps light 97th annual National Christmas Tree Trump to hold campaign rally in Michigan 'Don't mess with Mama': Pelosi's daughter tweets support following press conference comments MORE’s view on guns, and Trump removed him from office before his four-year term had completed.  

And so on it goes. The violence continues, with no interest or involvement from America’s top doctor. Dr. Adams could lead by example and develop a plan to confront the gun epidemic in our country. He could make a proactive statement about prevention, or acknowledge the toll it is taking on America’s families and communities.

Instead, he has turned a blind eye to a public health emergency his own contemporaries argue must be dealt with immediately. Americans must question whether Dr. Adams has put political expediency above the needs of a nation desperate for action on an issue that claims tens of thousands of lives each year. 

Dr. Adams is a voice for all Americans — especially the innocent victims of gun violence. His earsplitting silence on the subject is incompatible with his oath as a physician, and unbecoming of his duties as Surgeon General of the United States.  

Lyndon Haviland, DrPh, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health & Health Policy.