When it comes to advocating for firearm safety, physician organizations aren’t putting their money where their mouths are, according to a new study.
Physician organization-affiliated political action committees (PACs) made campaign contributions to politicians who actively voted against gun control bills, according to new research published in JAMA Network.
Noted, the research was done during the 2016 election cycle, before some of the mass shootings—including the deadly 2017 Las Vegas concert shooting and the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida—that reignited the debate about gun laws in the U.S. and had many physician organizations once again speaking out.
But in 2016, when many physician groups had taken a stance to curb gun violence, PACs affiliated with physician organizations contributed to campaigns to U.S. House of Representatives and Senate candidates whose stances on firearms differed from those of the doctor groups.
Researchers did a cross-sectional study of the 25 largest physician organization-affiliated PACs and found they contributed more money and to a higher proportion of candidates who voted against expanding firearm background checks, a policy that could reduce firearm-related injuries and deaths.
“The findings suggest that contribution patterns of most physician organization-affiliated political action committees are inconsistent with their policy recommendations for evidence-based firearm regulation and may pose a barrier for effective advocacy on this issue,” the researchers said.
The study found that 20 of 25 PACs (80%) contributed more in total to incumbent Senate candidates who voted against an amendment that would have expanded background checks than to those who voted for it.
For instance, the American Medical Association, the country’s largest physician organization, contributed $58,000 to Senate candidates who supported the amendment and $109,000 to candidates who voted against it. Similarly, the American Academy of Family Physicians donated $34,000 to Senate candidates who supported the amendment and $40,500 to those who voted against it.
Both groups, along with six other healthcare organizations, endorsed a “call to action” in 2015 that recommended steps such as universal background checks for firearm purchases and removing laws that stop physicians from discussing firearm safety with patients.
When it came to House candidates, 24 of the 25 PACs (96%) contributed more to incumbent candidates who did not cosponsor a resolution that sought to expand background checks and strengthen the national criminal background check system than to those who did cosponsor the bill.
A total of 21 of the 25 PACs contributed more dollars to candidates with an “A” rating by the National Rifle Association Political Victory Fund than candidates without that rating, which is based on candidate support for firearms. Overall, the PACs gave $5.6 million to candidates with an A rating and $4.1 million to those not rated A.
However, the study focuses on only one political issue, said Barbara L. McAneny, M.D., president of the AMA.
“The AMA is not a single-issue organization. We are a diverse organization with wide-ranging policies on matters such as the opioid epidemic, coverage for the uninsured, violence against women, telehealth, drug pricing, and, yes, guns. We know of no candidate or member of Congress who agrees with us on every one of the thousands of policies that guide the AMA’s advocacy,” she said in an e-mailed statement.
In an accompanying commentary, three authors from the University of Michigan said the study demonstrated the disconnect that exists between physician organization PAC priorities and the positions of their memberships when it comes to preventing firearm injuries.
The authors noted the nationwide response to the NRA’s recent statement admonishing physicians to “stay in their lane” with healthcare professionals responding on social media and in editorials describing their experiences treating patients with gunshot wounds.
The authors of both the study and the commentary noted it wasn’t the first time there’s been a conflict with public health advocacy and political donations. Both said there was a similar discrepancy between the AMA’s public calls to regulate the tobacco industry and their financial support of politicians who voted against such regulations.
“This history lesson serves as an important cautionary tale,” the authors of the commentary wrote, noting that "medical PACs must consider the increasing physician voice on the need to address firearm-associated morbidity and mortality in the policy arena to reduce their experience with this issue in emergency bays, operating rooms, and clinics.”