Doctors have been speaking up for gun control, but study finds medical PACs give more to pro-gun candidates

Posted at 9:03 AM, Feb 22, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-22 17:12:19-05

Political action committees, or PACs, that are tied to physicians’ groups in the United States have contributed more money to politicians who oppose certain gun control laws than to those in support of such policies — even though many physicians’ groups have called for stricter gun control, a new study shows.

In other words, there’s sometimes a disconnect between the political positions of certain physicians’ groups and the positions of the politicians whom their PACs have supported, according to the study, published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open on Friday.

Why medical PACs support certain candidates remains complex.

PACs are groups that raise money to spend on US elections. During the 2016 election cycle, the study found, all PACs affiliated with health care professional organizations contributed $23.7 million total; the 25 largest of those PACs contributed 57% of that amount, or $13.6 million.

During that election cycle, the study found that the 25 largest physician organization-affiliated PACs in the United States donated more funds overall to US House of Representatives and Senate candidates who oppose firearm safety policies.

The findings came as no surprise to the study’s lead author, Dr. Jeremiah Schuur, physician-in-chief for emergency medicine at the health system Lifespan and chair of the department of emergency medicine at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

In 2013, shortly after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Schuur wrote an open letter to the American College of Emergency Physicians. The letter, published in the journal Emergency Medicine News, called for the group to take a more active leadership role in advocating for gun control legislation.

As Schuur looked at the college’s policies and the more recent political contributions of its affiliated PAC, the National Emergency Medicine PAC, he noticed that it provided more in contributions to 2016 congressional candidates who did not support firearm background check legislation than to those who did. Such legislation would require or expand background checks for those purchasing guns.

Now, Schuur, a member of the American College of Emergency Physicians, hopes that his study will shed more light on those findings, as well as the contributions of other physicians’ groups.

“This research highlights an opportunity for physicians to be more effective advocates for our patients,” he said. “Indirectly, these contributions may actually undermine the health and safety of their patients. Physicians can change this by telling their specialty societies to prioritize firearms safety in how their PAC makes contributions.”

Michael Baldyga, a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians, noted in a statement that it is not a one-issue organization.

“Our political action committee (NEMPAC) supports bi-partisan candidates on several issues of importance to emergency medicine and patients. Our decisions are made by a board of emergency physicians utilizing a detailed criteria based on a candidate’s position on existing ACEP policies — we also look at leadership and committee assignments — legislators who have a role to play in health care policy,” the statement said.

Issues of priority for the organization include those related to emergency medical services, the country’s ongoing opioid crisis and medical liability reform, the statement said.

How much medical PACs spent

The new study included data on political contributions made between 2014 and 2016 to candidates in the 2016 congressional election from the 25 largest physician organization-affiliated PACs.

The data came from an independent and nonpartisan website called OpenSecrets, part of the Center for Responsive Politics, which aggregates data from the Federal Election Commission.

Many of those physicians groups affiliated with the PACs in the study, such as the American Medical Association, have supported certain restrictions on firearm sales, such as background checks, and have called gun violence a “public health crisis.”

The study involved taking a close look at each PAC’s contributions, along with each candidate’s stance on firearm-related policies, including Senate Amendment 4750 and House Bill 1217 — both unsuccessful measures that would have required or extended firearm background checks.

The researchers found that overall, the 25 PACs contributed $1,025,500 to Senate candidates who voted against SA 4750 and $525,500 to those who voted for it — a $500,000 difference.

Overall, the 25 PACs contributed $6,130,775 to candidates who did not cosponsor HR 1217 and $3,252,100 to those who did, a $2,878,675 difference, the study says.

The 25 PACs also gave $5.6 million overall to candidates rated A by the National Rifle Association and not as much, $4.1 million, to candidates without an A rating — a difference of $1.5 million.

During the 2016 election cycle, the NRA, a gun advocacy group, gave candidates letter-grade ratings based on their stances on gun rights. Typically, A-rated candidates were against gun control legislation. F-rated candidates tended to support gun control.

The study had some limitations, including that the data showed how much the medical PACs were contributing to politicians but not why those contributions were made. Also, the study included only data from the 2016 election cycle.

“Future research could be done to evaluate contributions over time,” Schuur said.

“The giving patterns may change depending on the key issues most important to the physician PACs as well as the political composition of the legislative branch,” he said. “We are currently analyzing the contributions from the recent election cycle,” 2016 to 2018.

Gun legislation remains a hot-button issue for lawmakers.

On Saturday, after a workplace mass shooting in Aurora, Illinois, Democratic candidates in the 2020 elections called for immediate action on gun control. Also last week, Democrats proposed a bill banning high-capacity gun magazines.

‘An important cautionary tale’

Some of the medical groups mentioned in the study emphasized that they are not single-issue organizations, and so their contributions reflect that.

The American Medical Association is “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,” President Dr. Barbara McAneny said in a statement.

“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,” the statement said.

An editorial published alongside the new study, authored by University of Michigan faculty members Dr. Rebecca Cunningham, Marc Zimmerman and Dr. Patrick Carter, points out that medical PACs have a history of making contributions that may not fully align with their medical groups’ political positions.

“For many years, we saw a similar discrepancy between the American Medical Association’s public calls to regulate the tobacco industry and their financial support of politicians who actively voted against such regulations. This history lesson serves as an important cautionary tale,” the editorial says.

Although the new study is the first of its kind, they wrote, “it is unlikely to be the last such examination in relation to firearm injury prevention goals of PACs and voices in the physician community.”