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What The NRA's War Against Obama's Surgeon General Pick Is Really About

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AP Photo / Steve Ueckert

The gun industry lobby issued a "special alert" to members on Wednesday with a call to action in bright red: "Please call your U.S. Senators and Ask Them to Oppose the Confirmation of Vivek Murthy for U.S. Surgeon General." The group provided a phone number for members to call their representatives.

The group reaffirmed its previously stated beef with Murthy, specifically that he has supported gun control measures such as a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons and limits on ammunition purchases. The NRA also claims his characterization of gun safety as a public health issue makes him a "gun control activist" with a "radical anti-gun agenda."

Proponents of gun control are furious.

“The NRA is unconscionably putting the country’s health at risk by attempting to prevent Dr. Murthy's approval," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told TPM. "He is eminently well-qualified, with strong support from leading medical and hospital groups and prominent professionals."

The action alert came after TPM and other outlets reported that Senate Democrats were well short of the 50 votes they needed (after eliminating the filibuster last November for most nominations) to confirm Murthy. One top Democratic aide said the party was eight to ten votes short after members bolted over the NRA's letter last month coming out against Murthy. The White House subsequently said it was "recalibrating" its approach.

So, why is the NRA fighting a battle that it appears to have already won?

An NRA spokesman declined to comment. One plausible reason is that the group wants to deliver a knockout blow in order to scare Democrats out of considering the nomination after the 2014 elections, where vulnerable members in pro-gun red states are defending their seats.

But there's a more overarching goal. The aggressive pro-gun lobbying group has crushed its gun control opponents over the last two decades, racking up victory after victory in Congress and the Supreme Court. With lawmakers on their side, and the courts on their side, the logical next step is to go after public servants who dare to cross them. It doesn't hurt to find new ways to excite members and keep the funds flowing, even if it means extending their tentacles into uncharted waters. Without new ways to instill fear that the government is coming for peoples' guns, member enthusiasm wanes and fundraising slows down.

Attacking a nominee to a post that lacks any ability to vote on gun laws is a curious move on its face. But it serves a dual purpose for the NRA: it keeps the pro-gun community energized and sends a message that the NRA will target anyone hoping to serve in public life if they voice support for gun control, even if their influence over the matter is tenuous.

Blumenthal, who stepped up his support for gun control in the wake of the horrific Newtown, Conn. shooting in December 2012 that left 20 children dead, said Murthy was "fully appropriate in addressing gun violence as a public health issue." The senator added that "[i]n his confirmation hearing, he indicated clearly that his focus will be on obesity, mental illness, tobacco-related disease and other public health issues unrelated to gun violence."

About The Author

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Sahil Kapur is TPM's senior congressional reporter and Supreme Court correspondent. His articles have been published in the Huffington Post, The Guardian and The New Republic. Email him at sahil@talkingpointsmemo.com and follow him on Twitter at @sahilkapur.