Majority of Latino voters back stricter gun control, survey shows

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LOS ANGELES — A strong majority of Latino voters — Democrat, Republican and independent — support stiffer gun control laws, including more vigorous background checks and creation of a national database of gun owners, according to a new survey of that increasingly important slice of the electorate.

The poll suggests Latinos tend to lean leftward in the gun debate regardless of political affiliation, which could further complicate GOP efforts to boost Latino support after November's poor showing.

"Latino voters are saying with a strong voice we want some new and smart gun policies taken up by the Congress," said Matt Baretto, a University of Washington political scientist and co-founder of Latino Decisions, the firm that conducted the nationwide survey.

The poll found 84 percent support for requiring criminal background checks before gun purchases, a proposal which, other national surveys suggest, has the broadest public support among those under consideration in Congress.

Substantial majorities of Latino voters also supported setting a limit on high-capacity gun magazines, making it illegal for people with documented mental illness to possess guns, and creating a national gun-owner registry. The latter notion is so controversial that even strong gun control advocates have shied away from pushing the idea, for fear of undermining support for other initiatives.

A ban on semi-automatic weapons garnered 54 percent support among Latinos surveyed and a measure allowing teachers or security personnel to carry loaded guns on campus was rejected by a strong majority, with just 39 percent approving.

Perhaps the most noteworthy finding was that Latino support for tougher gun controls was clear across the political spectrum. Other national surveys have found a clear divide between Democrats, who tend to favor new laws, and Republicans, who tend to be opposed.

"There's a lot of gun violence in black and Latino neighborhoods," Baretto said. "I think Latinos are aware of this, as they regularly cite neighborhood and public safety as an issue."

Leading Republicans have acknowledged the party's problem with Latino voters, evidenced by the dismal performance in November of presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Many have called on the party to moderate its approach to immigration reform, as a way to start healing the breach.

But the gun debate could undermine the GOP's outreach effort. "If they dig in their heels on this issue," Baretto suggested, "the Republican Party is going to have trouble with a lot of groups" -- not just Latinos, who make up the fastest-growing portion of the electorate, but also women voters, who also tend to support gun control efforts.

The survey of 500 registered Latino voters was conducted in English and Spanish from Feb. 20-28. Fifty percent of those surveyed identified themselves as Democrats, 38 percent as independent and 11 percent as Republican. The poll has an overall margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percent.