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The gun control debate can be complicated for Latinos, too

Most Latinos support background checks and assault rifle bans, but four-in-ten didn't want Congress to pass more laws restricting gun ownership.
Image: A visitor holds a pistol at a gun display during a National Rifle Association outdoor sports trade show
A visitor holds a pistol at a gun display during a National Rifle Association outdoor sports trade show on Feb. 10, 2017 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.Dominick Reuter / AFP/Getty Images

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Supporters of increased gun control legislation hope young activists like Emma Gonzalez, who mobilized following the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas mass shooting, will make the country come to terms with its problem with gun violence. More Americans have been killed with guns since 1968 than in all U.S. wars combined.

Much has been written about gun ownership and whites, with a particular focus on the anxiety white men have about their loss of social status, insecurity with the job market, and racial fears. Recent research has found that the changing demographics of the country, along with the shifting currents of the world economy, have left whites who once enjoyed a positive outlook for themselves and their families, feeling anxious about their situation and "...beset by racial fears," according to a recent article in Scientific American.

Like whites, however, Latinos have mixed feelings about gun control. For instance, a poll by Latino Decisions in 2016 showed that while 95 percent of Hispanics thought people should be required to pass a background check in order to buy a gun, far fewer, about 60 percent, felt that Congress should consider any new laws restricting gun ownership.

Like polls show, the country is torn on the balance between protecting the rights to gun ownership and controlling gun ownership. While a majority of Americans support individual measures, such as banning high capacity magazines and creating a federal database to track gun sales, their support for more gun laws deteriorates when discussing gun rights in the abstract. The same Pew study reported that 51 percent of adults said it was more important to control gun ownership, while 47 percent said protecting the right to own guns is more important.

Ulises, 42, who preferred to withhold his last name, is a teacher in South Florida. His parents came to the U.S. from Cuba. While he was not aware of any guns in his house when he was growing up, he said shooting skills were necessary for him to earn merit badges as a Cub Scout, from a bow and arrow to a rifle.

In a phone conversation with NBC News, Ulises said he bought his first gun just last year.

“You can be anywhere and someone breaks out into a shooting spree. It is something that you have to be prepared for," he said, pointing to the recent attention in Parkland, Florida and the growing rate of mass shootings. "I live for the most part in a safe neighborhood, but you never know,"

Among Latinos, only 21 percent own a gun or live in a household with someone who has a gun, according to Pew Research Center. For blacks, the number is 32 percent. By comparison, almost 50 percent of whites own a gun or live in a household with someone who does.

Despite their low ownership rates, 29 percent of Latinos and almost half of blacks say gun violence is a big problem in their local community, while only 11 percent of whites say so, despite much higher rates of suicide among whites than Hispanics. A little over four-in-10 Latinos, as well as whites, say they know someone who has been shot, compared to 57 percent of black adults.

A sense of fear and uncertainty feeds the desire to control one’s surroundings, and Ulises points to his new family members as a responsibility that compels him to be prepared. “Once you have a kid, things change,” he said.

Ulises was in favor of a more stringent vetting process for gun owners, and a more vigilant justice system in identifying potential sources of violence. “The Parkland incident, how are you going to have the police visit him so many times without a single arrest, I have a problem with that,” he said.

As reported in the Latino Decisions 2016 survey, four-in-10 Latinos do not want Congress to pass more laws restricting gun ownership. A common argument by those who resist increased gun laws is that there are cities that have a massive gun violence problem even though they have some of the toughest gun laws in the country.

Many gun activists point to Chicago as an example of the failure of gun laws. Indeed, Chicago experienced 762 murders in 2016, with over 4,000 victims of gun violence in some form, according to researcher James Garbarino. But in the same study, Garbarino points out that despite having a gun violence problem, Chicago is not the worst city in the country experiencing gun violence, nor does it have the most stringent gun laws.

Research has found that many of the weapons used in violent gun incidents in Chicago originate outside of the city and come from states with less stringent laws. According to the Garbarino study, 23 other cities had higher murder rates.

However, Chicago, with its significant black community, has become a salient talking point among gun activists. Research by Alexandra Filindra and Noah Kaplan at the University of Illinois at Chicago has found a link between racial attitudes and views on gun laws.

"Racial resentment is a statistically significant and substantively important predictor of white opposition to gun control," the researchers found, which they claim gives evidence to the argument that the gun control debate is “color-coded and evocative of racial resentment.”

This does not just apply to whites, but to Latinos too, according to a different study conducted by Filindra and Kaplan. They found that “whites and Latinos who perceived that blacks are more violent than whites were more opposed to gun control than whites and Latinos who did not perceive that blacks are more violent than whites.”

These studies point to the complicated interplay of people's views on guns with other attitudes, including race, as well as other factors like their sense of safety.

When it comes to the topic of arming teachers and school officials in schools, a recent SurveyMonkey poll found that most Americans think it will make schools more dangerous.

Ulises, who is a teacher, said he was more against it than for it. “I don’t think a student should fear a teacher because they have a gun on their waist. I don’t know how you work that out.”

Still, Ulises was skeptical of the effectiveness of more gun laws and wanted to rely on greater reporting and more security at schools. And, like others have mentioned when it comes to the gun debate, Ulises insisted that guns don’t kill people, people do. “The weapon itself doesn’t kill anybody, the human being pulling the trigger is the one that does the killing,” he said.