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Originally published February 14, 2013 at 4:32 PM | Page modified February 14, 2013 at 4:31 PM

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The public needs a healthy dose of gun safety

Universal background checks for gun purchases and safe storage of firearms are basic issues of public health and safety.

Times editorial columnist

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Firearms wound and kill Washington residents in alarming numbers. Lawmakers in Olympia must act to protect citizens from the hazards.

Basic public health and safety are at stake.

In the past Washington has dealt with seat belts, tobacco, impaired driving, immunizations, air and water pollution and the epidemic of meth.

All sorts of precautions are put into law to protect people from themselves and avoid harming others.

A flood tide of firearms in our culture has lethal consequences, from the mindless slaughter of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., to the Cafe Racer tragedy in Seattle.

More than 250 people recently gathered at Town Hall Seattle to hear local medical and academic experts describe the public-health menace and economic costs of gun violence in society. A speaker noted the meeting space was within 75 feet of one of the fatal encounters that spun off the Cafe Racer shootings.

The nation cannot suffer more than 31,000 firearm deaths each year and not regard that as a public-health problem, panelist Dr. Frederick Rivara, University of Washington professor of pediatrics and epidemiology, emphasized in a conversation this week.

The death toll is more than 125 people a year in King County, according to a report issued by Public Health — Seattle & King County.

Firearms claim lives and injure the innocent via accidents, suicides, assaults and homicides.

Dr. Beth Ebel, director of the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center, deals with the bloody toll on pediatric trauma patients. She testified Wednesday in Olympia in support of legislation for safer gun storage and universal background checks for all gun purchases.

Small changes can make a substantial difference, Ebel told me later. Improvements that would be most welcome, she said, “when you see what I see.”

Revised federal gun laws were featured Tuesday night in President Obama’s State of the Union address. Bans and limits on hardware — assault weapons and high-capacity magazines — are worthy of congressional action but face a tough road.

Background checks and limits on sales to people with mental-health issues stand a better chance.

Predictably, the biggest impediment to protecting Americans from the ravages of gun deaths and injuries is the National Rifle Association.

The NRA, on full auto for decades, is clueless about changes in the culture. The NRA president’s bumbling oratory after the slaughter in Connecticut spoke volumes.

Instead of siding with the best interests of its constituents, the NRA lives off the gun industry, rewards loyal politicians and bullies others, and assumes it is still the 1980s.

The NRA is used to winning. In the mid-1990s, high-caliber lobbying shot down federal support for research on gun violence. Do not let the truth get out.

Vice President Joe Biden, nudged by top university researchers, wants to restart federal investments in better information about gun violence.

Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess is leading a laudable effort to put city funds into public health gun-safety research and enhanced mental health emergency management and response. The $371,000 package is up for council review in early March.

Burgess also rallied community leaders from around the state to ask Gov. Jay Inslee to sign onto the National Violent Death Reporting System for data collection and analysis.

King County Executive Dow Constantine directed county Public Health to develop local strategies for preventing gun violence.

Washington lawmakers must not fail state residents. Broaden background checks for all sales and require safe storage for firearms.

Public opinion and law enforcement in Washington support these basic public-health precautions. Fundamental gun rights are not abridged by protecting the innocent and keeping guns out of the hands of those who should not possess them.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is ldickie@seattletimes.com

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