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Editorial: Don't let NRA shoot down vote on surgeon general

In this Feb. 4, 2014, photo, Dr. Vivek

In this Feb. 4, 2014, photo, Dr. Vivek Hallegere Murthy, President Barack Obama's nominee to be the next U.S. Surgeon General, listens on Capitol Hill in Washington. The White House is backing off its push for quick confirmation of Obama’s pick to be surgeon general in the face of opposition from the National Rifle Association and concerns among Democrats up for re-election who don’t want to make another tough vote on a controversial nominee. Credit: AP

With Ebola anxiety gripping the nation, the confirmation of a surgeon general is one key piece of unfinished business for the U.S. Senate after this year's campaign fever has broken.

Unfortunately, that may not happen, no matter which party wins the majority. The gun lobby's reach is bipartisan and its bullying has consequences for our public health system. The National Rifle Association is blocking a vote on nominee Dr. Vivek Murthy. This is no time for special-issue myopia.

The job of surgeon general is often a bully pulpit; for instance, to urge people to stop smoking or to use condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS. But this is no ordinary time, not when the deadly Ebola virus has made it from West Africa to the United States. A surgeon general should take the lead in reassuring the public, providing the best information available on how to reduce the risk of illness and overseeing an elite corps of 6,800 public health professionals, some of whom are at work in West Africa. But that authoritative voice has been missing. There hasn't been a permanent surgeon general since July 2013.

Murthy was nominated in November 2013. He's an internist with a glittering resume, including medical and business degrees from Yale. He is a practicing physician, instructor at Harvard Medical School and founder of several health businesses and nonprofits. Committee approval in February cleared the way for a Senate vote. But then the NRA ambushed the nomination. In a letter to Senate leaders, the NRA branded Murthy a supporter of "radical" gun control. The NRA put senators on notice that it would remember who voted for him.

As a founder of Doctors for America, Murthy backed a ban on assault weapons, limits on ammunition purchases and removal of restrictions on collecting data on gun violence. That's hardly radical. Besides, Murthy said that as surgeon general, he would focus on obesity and tobacco-related diseases and the stigma of mental illness -- not gun control.

The Senate should vote when it returns to work Nov. 12. The public is on edge about Ebola. This Senate gunfight is a sideshow.