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One good thing about starting a new year is that it offers opportunities to do better. And there will be plenty of material to work with because we’ll carry a lot of unfinished business into 2014.

Look at the newspaper and you’ll see plenty of challenges in need of people driven to address them: hunger, homelessness, substance abuse, poverty, gun violence, the need for more accessible and better education and mental-health care.

Those are complex problems that bleed over into each other and draw in other issues as well. That means they are difficult to deal with, but also that improvements in any one of them yield benefits in multiple areas. Children do better in school when they have stable homes and aren’t hungry. Do better at solving any of those problems and crime rates go down, life prospects improve.

They’re all important, but a couple of them rose to prominence during the year because of tragedies that brought intense attention to them.

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Earlier this year, Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Legislature took on the challenge of one deadly aspect of substance abuse, driving under the influence.

It was a window of time in which momentum born in reaction to two horrific, deadly crashes pushed forward a rare package of proposed changes, but the reforms didn’t all survive budgetary and political obstacles. Some should be revisited — for instance, toughening the provision that makes DUI a felony only with the fifth conviction within five years.

The governor and Legislature need sustained public interest and support for further change. And change is certainly still needed.

Just a week ago, 56-year-old Jeffrey Waterfall’s truck crashed in Federal Way, killing Kevin D. Nevin, 52. The driver, Waterfall, was tested afterward and found to have a blood alcohol content nearly three times the legal limit. He has been charged with vehicular homicide. According to police, Waterfall had a previous DUI conviction.

The battle for safe streets will only get more complicated and more urgent. In Seattle, we have more bicyclists on our streets, the city is encouraging more pedestrian travel, and cars will more and more be sharing streets with streetcars and trains. We need to keep reducing the instances of people driving while impaired (and the number driving with digital distractions, too).

Cars and drivers are regulated because they can be a dangerous and even deadly combination. Guns and people can be an even more volatile mix. More people in
Washington state
die by gun than by car.

The 26 deaths in Newtown, Conn., last December brought sharp attention to the need to address gun violence. But most gun deaths aren’t the result of massacres. Deaths happen every day in suicides, crimes and accidents. Controlling access to guns must play a part in reducing the number of such deaths, along with gun-safety strategies and better access to sound mental-health care.

There are two active initiatives on the matter of controlling access to guns in Washington. Initiative 594 calls for universal criminal-background checks for anyone who wishes to buy a gun. Initiative 591 would bar the state from adopting universal background checks.

At present, people who wish to buy a gun in Washington undergo a background check if they are buying from a federally licensed seller. A bill in the Legislature that would have expanded checks to include purchases from private sellers failed to advance.

This year I wrote about public-health officials here and elsewhere in the country who are trying to take some of the emotion out of discussions of gun violence by emphasizing the public-health and safety aspects of gun ownership and use.

Maybe their work will have an impact the next time the Legislature confronts gun violence, or if voters are asked to choose whether to take a small step toward better oversight by requiring background checks for private gun sales.

Reducing the harm in our society that people cause with guns will require the slow work of cultural change, and that requires constant work, sometimes with little obvious reward.

All of the problems on the list, and more besides, can seem intractable, but they aren’t. They’re just challenging.

Problems waiting for solutions can make you or I pull the covers over our heads, or they can give us a reason to get out of bed in the morning. We know which is the best way to head into a new year.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or

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