One year after gun violence at the Clackamas Town Center shopping mall and in Newtown, Conn., shook communities across this nation, we have yet to settle the debate on gun safety in Salem or our nation’s capitol.

As we continue to mourn these tragedies, we must do more to prevent them from happening again.

We in public health are thoroughly committed to protecting the safety of our communities. The Oregon Public Health Association and the National Physicians Alliance support state and federal efforts to ensure background checks for all gun purchases. Without background checks, guns in the hands of dangerous individuals continue to threaten the safety of our communities.

The United States is unique among high-income countries for our high rates of gun fatalities. There are more than 30,000 deaths a year in the U.S. resulting from gun violence. In 2010, Oregon alone had more deaths due to firearms than all of Australia and the United Kingdom combined.

According to the Oregon Health Authority, there were 455 deaths in Oregon in 2010 from firearms (this includes accidents, suicides, homicides and law enforcement). The vast majority of these deaths — 374—were suicide.

In our beautiful state, every day of the year there is a gun-related funeral, devastated loved ones and another gravestone in an Oregon cemetery. We can do more to reduce these fatalities. We have to.

Strong background checks are a critical part of the solution. Pundits may debate the efficacy of background checks, but research shows that background checks work. In a recent analysis by the Journal of the American Medical Association of Internal Medicine (Fleegler et al, 2013) found, “A higher number of firearm laws in a state are associated with a lower rate of firearm fatalities in the state overall and for suicides and homicides individually.”

Simply put, the review found that states with strong background check legislation had lower rates of firearm mortality, period.

In 2012, background checks in Oregon prevented 2,378 people who shouldn’t own guns from buying them. How many of those went on to purchase guns through loopholes in our law? We don’t know, but likely quite a few, along with those who knew they wouldn’t pass a check and avoided the process altogether. Is this what Oregonians expected when they passed an initiative that they thought required universal background checks?

Most of you agree with OPHA and NPA; a January 2013 poll showed that 81 percent of Oregonians support background checks. We thank our lawmakers who are listening to their constituents and engaging in this critical and often contentious debate. While efforts like background checks are often rightly framed as “commonsense,” we believe these actions are also good public health policy.

Josie Henderson is executive director of the Oregon Public Health Association, Portland, and Dr. James P. Scott is currently the president of the National Physicians Alliance and has served on the faculty at Oregon Health & Science University, Portland.

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