Vivek Murthy, Xavier Becerra signal gun control path for Joe Biden

Gun Rights

Presumptive President-elect Joseph R. Biden sent a clear signal about his gun control agenda as he named his picks for top health care policy posts Monday, announcing his intent to nominate vocal proponents of stricter firearms controls to key positions in the incoming administration.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Mr. Biden‘s pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, has spent the past several years defending his state’s strict gun laws in court and has championed tighter restrictions for much of his lengthy career in public office.

Dr. Vivek Murthy, Mr. Biden‘s pick to reprise his role as U.S. surgeon general, made the case during the Obama administration that gun violence should be treated as a public health issue as Mr. Biden helped lead the charge for stricter controls when he was Mr. Obama’s vice president.

Brandon Combs, president of the California-based Firearms Policy Coalition, said Mr. Becerra initially seemed more approachable on gun rights issues than presumptive Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris, who was Mr. Becerra‘s predecessor as California attorney general.

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“That being said, it didn’t change any policies,” Mr. Combs said. “But he was a politician in D.C. for years, and that’s exactly kind of what we expect.”

Before becoming California’s attorney general, Mr. Becerra represented Los Angeles in Congress from 1993 to 2017.

In recent years, Mr. Becerra‘s office has defended state restrictions in court such as California’s ban on military-style “assault” weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

Lawyers working with Mr. Combs’ group filed a brief last week as part of a lawsuit challenging the state’s laws that generally ban people younger than 21 from buying guns.

Dr. Murthy, meanwhile, attracted scorn from gun rights activists during his confirmation process in 2013 and 2014 for saying that gun violence should be treated as a public health issue.

“Tired of politicians playing politics w/guns, putting lives at risk b/c they’re scared of NRA. Guns are a health care issue,” he tweeted in October 2012, about two months before the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

The Senate, then controlled by Democrats, confirmed Dr. Murthy as surgeon general in December 2014 on a 51-43 vote. His nomination had languished for more than a year because of opposition from groups such as the National Rifle Association.

Gun control advocates hailed Mr. Biden‘s selections of Mr. Becerra and Dr. Murthy.

“America is facing down two intertwined crises right now — COVID and gun violence — and Attorney General Becerra and Dr. Murthy understand that we need to tackle both at the same time,” said John Feinblatt, president of the group Everytown for Gun Safety.

Beyond guns, Mr. Becerra is shaping up to be a lightning rod for conservative opposition.

He played a leading role in defending Obamacare in the health care law’s most recent high-profile test in the courts. The case in question is before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“In Congress, I helped pass the Affordable Care Act. As California’s Attorney General, I defended it,” Mr. Becerra said Monday in a post on Twitter.

As California’s chief law enforcement officer, Mr. Becerra has filed or joined more than 100 lawsuits against the Trump administration and has staked out decidedly liberal views on issues including health care, abortion rights and illegal immigration.

California has spent at least $43 million suing the Trump administration during Mr. Becerra‘s time as attorney general over illegal immigrant “Dreamers,” emission regulations and other issues.

His office defended those costs by saying the legal actions saved California billions of dollars in funding it would have otherwise lost.

“Every single case is based on Donald Trump and his administration doing something against the law,” Mr. Becerra told The Sacramento Bee in August. “We didn’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to sue Donald Trump again?’”

If confirmed, Mr. Becerra would be the first Hispanic to lead HHS, which will play a significant role in combating COVID-19 and facilitating the delivery of vaccines. Mr. Biden has been facing pressure to tap more Hispanic and Black candidates for leading roles in his administration.

The California Legislature voted to confirm Mr. Becerra to his current post in January 2017.

He accepted then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s appointment to fill the job that Ms. Harris left after she won election to the U.S. Senate in 2016.

Before that, Mr. Becerra spent a good portion of his 12 terms as a congressman rising through the ranks of House Democratic leadership. He was chairman of the House Democratic Caucus from 2013 to 2017 and is a past chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Mr. Becerra is a longtime supporter of a “Medicare for All” government-run health care plan championed by Mr. Biden‘s more liberal 2020 rivals, such as Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont.

He got crosswise with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, in 2009 during the drafting of Obamacare when he suggested that Democratic leadership gave up too quickly on pushing for a government-run public health insurance option to be added to the bill.

“I understand I have tire tracks on my back because Xavier threw me under the bus,” Mrs. Pelosi was quoted as saying at the time, according to Politico.

In addition to Mr. Becerra and Dr. Murthy, Mr. Biden on Monday formally named other picks for top posts related to health care:

⦁ Dr. Rochelle Walensky, chief of the infectious diseases division at Massachusetts General Hospital, for director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

⦁ Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, a co-chair of Mr. Biden‘s COVID-19 advisory board and associate professor at the Yale School of Medicine, for chair of a COVID-19 Equity Task Force.

⦁ Jeffrey Zients, a co-chair of Mr. Biden‘s transition team and top economic adviser during the Obama administration, as coordinator of the federal government’s COVID-19 response and a counselor to the president.

⦁ Natalie Quillian, a deputy campaign manager for Mr. Biden and former White House and Pentagon adviser, for deputy coordinator of the COVID-19 response.

⦁ Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for chief medical adviser on COVID-19.

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