Wyoming Bristles At Surgeon General’s Claim Guns A Public Health Crisis

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy declared this week that gun violence is a public health crisis and called for an assault weapons ban. Wyoming gun owners bristled at the notion and said he doesn’t know what he’s talking about it.

Mark Heinz

June 28, 20246 min read

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has put out a call to declare guns a public health crisis in America.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has put out a call to declare guns a public health crisis in America. (Getty Images)

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has declared gun violence a public health crisis in America and that only measures such as banning assault weapons will stop it, but some Wyomingites bristle at trying to make guns a public health issue.

“I might say that violence is a public health crisis. I’m not sure what putting that word ‘gun’ in front of it does,” George Mocsary, a University of Wyoming law professor and co-founder of the UW Firearms Research Center, told Cowboy State Daily.

Firearms enthusiast Nic George of Sheridan said he thinks that Murthy’s declaration this week is a politically motivated gun control ploy, not about public health overall.

“That declaration is a vast overreach,” he said. “And they’re just trying to continue gun control policies that this administration (of President Joe Biden) is trying to push.”

However, some of Murthy’s points could be valid for Wyoming, said Beth Howard of Cheyenne, a volunteer with Wyoming Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense In America.

Specifically, the surgeon general’s calls for stronger background checks and safe storage of firearms could be good for the Cowboy State, particularly when it comes to suicide, she said.

“I think it (Murthy’s declaration) is spot on,” she said. “But I don’t think that some of the restrictions they’re recommending are going to catch on in Wyoming.”

Like The Early ’90s All Over Again?

Murthy based his declaration on a reported rise in gun deaths. In October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that gun deaths in 2023 had hit a 40-year high at more than 47,000.

Gun control advocates applauded Murthy’s official declaration Tuesday that gun violence as a public health crisis. They hope that will give gun control the same weight and sense of urgency as pervious public health campaigns, such as the push against smoking.

The surgeon general declared that among children, gun fatalities has exceeded other causes of death like motor vehicle crashes.

Gun-related homicide and suicide rates both rose 8% last year, each hitting levels not seen since the early 1990s, according to reports. The early 1990s are frequently cited as one of the most violent periods in recent American history.

Murthy’s prescription for gun violence includes familiar gun control proposals.

He stated that he wants a national ban on “assault weapons and large-capacity magazines for civilian use.”

He also favors universal background checks for buying firearms, restrictions on guns in public spaces and penalties for the improper or unsafe storage of firearms.

Mocsary previously told Cowboy State Daily that he thinks “assault weapon” is a term that’s frequently misused used in gun control debates.

How Are Numbers Broken Down?

Mocsary said conclusions about gun death data can frequently depend upon how the numbers are broken down.

“It can depend on what you mean by ‘child.’ Are we talking ages 0-13 or are we including ages 14-17?” he said.

Among the latter group, 14-17, the number of gun deaths can spike, according to some CDC databases. That could be because of gang-related violence, Moscary said.

“Most gun deaths in that age range take place in a big city,” he said.

Also, including people up to age 20 as “children” can change the numbers even further, Mocsary said.

One CDC database shows that in 2022, there were 2,538 firearms-related deaths among those up to age 17.

But when the age range was expanded to 0-20, the number of deaths that year was 5,642.

Howard said that if firearms fatalities have surpassed other causes of death among children, it should be a wake-up call “for gun owners and non-gun owners alike.”

Suicide Prevention

George said “lumping all gun-related deaths together” gives an inaccurate perception.

A huge portion of gun deaths are suicides, he said.

“It would be like, if I threw myself out a window tomorrow and landed on a car, it could be counted as a motor vehicle death,” he said.

Wyoming typically has a high suicide rate, but singling firearms out in relation to those tragedies doesn’t give an accurate picture, George said.

“The actual depression and suicide is a public health issue, but the method by which it’s done isn’t the public health issue,” he said.

Suicidal people who can’t get firearms often simply find other means, George said.

Howard countered, saying that easy access to firearms can drive up suicide rates.

Whether a gun is sitting out in the open, loaded or unloaded, and locked away can make all the difference is somebody is feeling suicidal, she said.

“Any step you can take to slow somebody down from making that decision helps,” she said. “Any step that a person in crisis has to take gives them a chance to rethink their decision.”

So, if a person has to go through the trouble of unlocking a gun safe to retrieve the firearm, go get the ammunition from a separate place and then go through the process of loading the gun, they have more chances to stop and go seek mental health treatment, Howard said.

She added that Wyoming is one of only a handful of states that doesn’t report information about involuntary mental health holds to the background check databases.

That means that if somebody in Wyoming who has been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility goes to buy a firearm here, the record of that commitment might not show up in a background check.

“In the course of doing this work I’ve had lawmakers, on both the federal and state level, tell me, ‘It’s not a gun problem, it’s a mental health problem.’” She said. “Well, if it is a mental health problem, shouldn’t we do something to fix that?”

Culture War

Mocsary said he thinks that officials in large urban areas that are rife with violence trying to force gun control on rural areas such as Wyoming amounts to “cultural imperialism.”

“People in big cities just can’t keep their house in order and guns are misused there,” he said. “Somehow, this is being taken out on people in states like Wyoming, where this is just part of our culture, and this is important to us.”

Mark Heinz can be reached at mark@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter