Guns Are a Greater Public Health Threat Than Ebola

Shepard Smith was the rare voice of reason during the most fevered hours of the Ebola madness that temporarily gripped the nation this month. The Fox News anchor dedicated four minutes of a newscast to explaining what had been evident once you took a deep breath.

The Ebola epidemic sweeping across three West African nations was not sweeping across the United States, he said. One person died. He got sick overseas. Two nurses caring for him were isolated. One has been released. (Another doctor is now being treated in New York.) Those hyping fear of the deadly virus in the media were being “very irresponsible,” Smith said, and if you wanted to do something, get a flu shot. “Unlike Ebola, flu is early transmitted. Flu … killed 52,000 Americans last year alone.”

Four minutes is an eternity on cable news but such was the height of the hysteria that Smith thought it wise to offer a significant corrective. This despite his network’s strenuous efforts to compete for panicked viewers with CNN, which satirist Andy Borowitz quipped was changing its slogan from “The Most Trusted Name in News” to “Holy Crap, We’re All Gonna Die.” And because peak Ebola was happening just before the midterm elections, President Barack Obama decided to create a new position—a so-called Ebola czar—to mute accusations, from Republicans and Democrats, that he’s not doing enough. Obama appointed Ron Klain, a Washington insider, to be his point man. The Pentagon also announced a military rapid-response team to aid in dealing with any sign of epidemic.

This was probably the right thing to do, politically and practically. Ebola is a scary disease that kills in horrible ways. (Once you show symptoms, you’re already dying.) Therefore, a president must project calm, cool and command. Say what you will about the chief executive but Obama has, always has, projected such traits, which is reassuring to those naturally and understandably concerned about themselves and the welfare of their children.

Politically, he didn’t have much choice but to act. The Republicans have been bludgeoning him with the issue, as is their wont. For the conservatives who dominate today’s GOP, any time government doesn’t work perfectly is an affirmation of their belief that government doesn’t work at all. And their loud calls for the president to do something, anything, belie their traditional claim that most problems can be best solved without the help of a meddling federal government.

Such principled incoherence might be ignored if not for the impact it’s having on the Democratic chances in November. Congressman Bruce Braley is in a tight Senate race in Iowa. During a congressional hearing, he said: “I’m greatly concerned … that the administration did not act fast enough.” Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina is just three points ahead of her Republican challenger according to one poll. She announced recently that she supported Republican calls for flight bans from West Africa, where the Ebola outbreak is worst. (The government has since announced that incoming flights are to be restricted to five airports.)

Given that Obama responded so quickly to pressure to appoint an Ebola “czar,” you’d expect him to respond to calls for an outright ban, especially when vulnerable Democrats are getting behind the idea. But Obama is dithering. He cites public health officials who say a ban is unnecessary with current and improved protocols in place. Yet expertise had nothing to do with appointing an Ebola “czar.” Ron Klain has no heath care experience and little knowledge of public health policy.

I wouldn’t normally make much of this, as Obama is a shrewd president serving his party. But there are greater threats to public health than a rare disease from a foreign country. To be blunt: There are 300 million firearms in circulation and by one estimate death by gunfire will exceed death by automobile accident some time next year. What we don’t need a fake “czar” to handle a fake epidemic. What we need is a surgeon general to handle a very real public-health threat.

The position of the surgeon general has been vacant so long no one remembers who last occupied it. That’s in part due to the president’s competing priorities but it’s mostly due to a filibuster last spring by Senate Republicans of Obama’s highly qualified nominee, Vivek Murthy. The reason is quite plain. Murthy is outspoken in the belief that gun violence is not a constitutional issue but a health issue. The National Rifle Association fears that is cannot control a political narrative outside the one it controls—the right to bear arms being a universal, constitutional, individual and sacred right that cannot be infringed by the federal government. The vocal but weak gun-control faction in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party cannot compete with such a narrative because their narrative tells the story of taking something away—guns and freedom, in the opposing view. Only a narrative as powerful, and as fear-inducing, as a public health threat like the one we’re currently seeing has the strength to rival the dominance of the NRA’s narrative. So Obama has an opportunity to ram through his nominee. That is, if he chose to.

There are reasons to believe he won’t. One is vulgar but needs stating: he’s the first black American president and his every move arouses deep suspicions in the Know-Nothing electorate that currently sways leadership in the Republican Party. This alone explains the Republicans’ doctrine of Massive Resistance, as it were, which has been their single and most effective political strategy since Obama took office. More significant and more subtle is the prevailing view among establishment Democrats, Obama included, that conflict is bad. This is a party that thinks a great deal about tactics and winning elections but avoids taking a stand if at all possible. And finally, even if Obama were to mount a head-on collision with Senate Republicans over Murthy’s nomination, the result might not be worth the effort. Murthy’s widely acknowledged credentials just don’t matter. As Senator Ted Cruz told CNN: “Look, of course we should have a surgeon general in place. And we don’t have one because President Obama, instead of nominating a health professional, he nominated someone who is an anti-gun activist.”

So, the irony remains.

One person dies from Ebola and everyone screams.

Eight people die every day in gun-related deaths and no one says a word.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer.