They say that politics makes strange bedfellows, and here we have a perfect example of that. Two of the major physician groups in Wisconsin—the Wisconsin Medical PAC and the Wisconsin Emergency Medicine PAC—joined the NRA in financially supporting the gubernatorial campaign of Scott Walker over his challenger, Tony Evers, who was opposed by the NRA primarily because he supports state legislation that would require universal background checks for gun purchases in Wisconsin. Despite the best efforts of the NRA and these Wisconsin physician organizations, Evers defeated Walker and so the prospect of meaningful firearm violence prevention legislation in Wisconsin remains alive.
In addition to the NRA, which gave Governor Walker an A+ rating in 2014, other major contributors to his gubernatorial reelection campaign for the 2018 cycle, according to an open secrets project run by the Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, included the Wisconsin Medical PAC, which represents the Wisconsin Medical Society, and the Wisconsin Emergency Medicine PAC, which represents the Wisconsin chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP).
Given that physician organizations such as the American College of Emergency Physicians, have been boasting about their commitment to preventing firearm violence and that individual physicians are orchestrating a campaign (#ThisIsOurLane) to convince the public that gun violence prevention is appropriately in our domain, it is shocking to see that behind the scenes, these physician organizations have been fighting against the very causes they purport to champion. While ACEP, for example, has endorsed universal background checks, Wisconsin ACEP has been working against the implementation of this policy by contributing to the NRA A+ rated Scott Walker, who Wisconsin ACEP knows would never sign such legislation. And while most major national physician groups purport to champion gun violence prevention policies, the Wisconsin Medical Society has also worked behind the scenes to help ensure that these policies never see the light of day in the state of Wisconsin.
What could possibly explain this level of hypocrisy?
As I teach my public health students, when you see organizations sacrificing their stated principles like this, it usually amounts to one thing: money. In fact, the major reason why physician organizations in Wisconsin and throughout the country are supporting NRA-backed candidates is that at the end of the day, these candidates will protect physician salaries by opposing wholesale adoption of universal health coverage or mandated insurance coverage systems that might otherwise pose a threat. And clearly, these groups are placing a higher priority on protecting physician salaries than on fighting gun violence.
By the way, I have no problem with that decision. I do not begrudge anyone or any organization the right to place a high priority on self-protection of their financial well-being. HOWEVER, what I do not accept is for those organizations to make such a decision and then tell the public that they are working to fight gun violence. You can’t have it both ways. Either you make fighting gun violence a priority, or you don’t. And if you don’t, then you can’t come out here and tell the public that you are a public health champion when it comes to preventing gun violence.
If gun violence prevention is truly “our lane,” then in 2019, there is a course of action that every national and state physician organization should take. And every physician who is promoting the #ThisIsOurLane movement should put pressure on their national organizations and state chapters to take this action.
The action is simple: pledge to never again make financial contributions to any political candidate who takes NRA money. Divest from NRA-backed candidates. This would send a powerful message to the public. It would show that medical organizations are willing to put their money where their mouth is. It would demonstrate that physician organizations will no longer act like hypocrites and say one thing while doing the exact opposite behind the scenes. Most importantly, it would have a profound effect on the NRA’s ability to influence public policy.
Federal policymakers receive more money from medical and physician organizations combined then they do from the NRA. If it became clear to federal candidates that by taking NRA money, they would be sacrificing their ability to receive any donations from physician groups, they would seriously think twice about accepting that money. The physician groups have a tremendous amount of leverage with their campaign contributions.
This is why I am working with several other physicians to initiate a campaign in 2019 to encourage all physician organizations to pledge to discontinue financial contributions to candidates who take NRA money.
This idea is not a new one. Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a former Baltimore City health commissioner, state of Maryland health department secretary, and deputy FDA commissioner, who is now a Professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, published a paper with his father – Dr. Steven Sharfstein – in 1994, criticizing the American Medical Association for contributing to federal candidates who opposed handgun regulation, supported federal subsidies to promote tobacco sales, and promoted a ban on abortion counseling at federally funded clinics. Dr. Sharfstein went on to write an article promoting divestment of physician PAC contributions from political candidates who took money from Big Tobacco.
If we as physicians want to be able to sincerely claim that gun violence prevention is our lane, then the first step is to ensure that the organizations that represent us – all national and state-level physician associations – stop giving money to politicians who are financially backed by the NRA and who we know will oppose any and all gun violence prevention policies. Enough is enough. We can’t have it both ways any longer.
Michael Siegel, MD, MPH
Department of Community Health Sciences
Boston University School of Public Health
801 Massachusetts Avenue, 3rd Floor
Boston, MA 02118