Gun Nuts Against Health Reform

How the gun lobby groped its way into the Obamacare debate.

Click here for a guide to following the health care reform story online.

Larry Pratt.
Larry Pratt 

Gun Owners of America is a lobby group dedicated to the proposition that the National Rifle Association is a bunch of accommodationist sissies. Since June it has been campaigning energetically against the health care reform bill (“TeddyCare”). What does health reform have to do with gun control? Absolutely nothing. But when you’re a wingnut and right-wing rage is in the air, the sidelines can seem awfully lonesome.

GOA’s primary animus appears to be against health reform’s “individual mandate” requiring people who lack health insurance to acquire some. This offends GOA for approximately the same libertarian reasons that gun control does. A June 16 alert to members went on at great length about the requirement that Americans “buy as much health insurance as the government demands.” You had to read halfway down to find the gun-control angle, which was laughably tenuous. Computerization of medical records, which is promoted in the bill, meant that the government would acquire all sorts of information relating to … gun ownership.


“Remember,” asked GOA, “when your son was asked by his pediatrician about your gun collection?” Er, no. “That would be in the federal database.” It continued:

Remember when your wife told her gynecologist that she had regularly smoked marijuana ten years ago—thereby potentially barring both her and you from ever owning a gun again? That would be in the database.

Or if a military veteran complains to his psychiatrist that he’s had emotional stress since coming back to the States, that would be in the database.

Or remember when gramps was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, thereby making him a “mental defective” who would have to relinquish his life-long gun collection? That’s in there too.

Keeping guns out of the hands of Alzheimer’s patients and the mentally ill seems a pretty good idea to me, but as it happens, there is no national medical database, and the bill would not create one. Even if one existed, the Health and Human Services Department would not be allowed to share such information with law enforcement authorities without explicit permission from Congress. David Blumenthal, national coordinator for health information technology, told Southern California Public Radio: “We don’t want to do it, and it’s not authorized. We don’t just do things without the Congress permitting us to do them.”

Sensing, perhaps, that it needed a better argument, in October GOA opened a new front against health reform: If forced to purchase health insurance, “[y]ou will have less money for buying firearms and ammunition.”

Even GOA’s own legal counsel, though, must have grasped the absurdity of this argument; buying food leaves you less money for buying firearms and ammunition, too, but that hardly makes supermarkets violators of the Second Amendment. And so a third front was opened, this time against health reform’s provisions encouraging insurers to charge higher premiums to those engaged in unhealthy behavior. In the House bill, for instance, the Health and Human Services Department would award “wellness grants” to small businesses that promote preventive care, in part through “prevention and support for employee populations at risk of poor health outcomes.” The activities cited as creating such a risk are tobacco use, obesity, stress, lack of physical fitness, poor nutrition, drug use, and poor mental health. But, GOA insisted, “nothing within the bill would prohibit rabidly anti-gun HHS Secretary Sebelius from decreeing that ‘no guns’ is somehow healthier.”


On Nov. 17, GOA Executive Director Larry Pratt  contacted every U.S. senator urging him or her to vote “no” on the motion to proceed with debate on health care reform. This time, GOA attracted scattered media attention, including a mention by Cokie Roberts on National Public Radio, and the White House decided to weigh in. (Click here for GOA’s sputtering reply.)

GOA’s professed fear that gun ownership might be judged a preventive care issue by the federal government puts it outside the reality-based community. As the White House notes, neither the House nor the Senate bill mentions firearms at all (for a more thorough examination of the question, see the St. Petersburg Times’ PolitiFact), and as a political matter the last thing the Obama administration would ever seek in promoting health reform is a fight with the gun lobby. In case you haven’t noticed, the bill needs all the friends it can get.

If GOA has a problem with guns and insurance, it stems not from the federal government but from the private sector. Private insurers have on occasion concluded (not unreasonably, it seems to me) that people who play with guns pose an unacceptable insurance risk. This drives GOA batty. But there’s no way to fix that without enacting government prohibitions inhibiting the conduct of private commerce. For conservatives, the health care reform bill presents a fatter, albeit imaginary, target.

E-mail Timothy Noah at