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South Florida, national polls show support for stricter gun laws

South Florida residents overwhelmingly support gun control -- even among Republicans and members of the National Rifle Association, according to a survey released this week.

The telephone survey of 600 residents in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties found that 90 percent favored background checks for gun purchases, and that 86 percent support requiring gun owners to register their firearms. 

Nearly 75 percent of South Florida NRA members support background checks -- and half, or 52 percent, support requiring gun owners to register their firearms, the poll said. The results have a margin of error of plus- or minus-4 percent.

The poll was commissioned by the Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention, a group founded by the parents of a Miami woman who was murdered in 1995 in St. Louis while attending college at Washington University. It was co-sponsored by the University of Miami's Community and Educational Well-Being Research Center and conducted in late March by a Stuart-based research firm, Insights, Inc. 

Lynn Aptman, president of the Melissa Institute, said the group commissioned the poll to learn more about South Florida’s views on gun control given the national debate over President Barack Obama’s plan to reduce gun violence, which includes a proposal for universal background checks on gun sales.

Aptman said some of the findings surprised her, such as the number of people — 26 percent of those polled — who said the shootings of school children in Newtown, Conn. changed their opinion about gun laws.

“It just proves there’s a real groundswell of support right now among people to have our federal and state elected officials take action to change the status quo and make some significant changes to the existing laws,’’ Aptman said.

The South Florida survey findings reflect the results of other polls on certain questions — such as broad support for universal background checks.

A national poll released Friday, this one by Quinnipiac University, found that voters support universal gun background checks by a margin of 91 percent to 8 percent, even though voters said by a margin of 48 percent to 38 percent that the government could use the information to confiscate legally-owned guns.

Asked more generally whether they favor stricter gun control, people responding to the Quinnipiac poll said yes by a margin of 53 percent to 42 percent. They expressed even stronger support of 59 percent to 36 percent for a ban on the sale of military style semi-automatic rifles, or assault weapons. A similar margin of voters polled – 58 percent to 38 percent — said they support limiting the capacity of ammunition magazines to 10 rounds.

But those poll results appear to contradict the findings of yet another national poll, conducted by CBS News and released on March 26, that found a surge in support for stricter gun control laws in the months following the December school shooting in Newtown, Conn. had returned to pre-Newton levels.

About 57 percent of Americans supported stricter gun control laws just after the Newton shootings, the CBS News poll said. But that number returned to 47 percent in late March, about three months after the school massacre in which a lone gunman killed 20 students and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary.

The apparent difference in findings may be explained by the questions asked and the specific wording of those questions. The findings also leave unanswered questions.

For instance, though a majority of voters in the Quinnipiac poll agree with the National Rifle Association that background checks could lead someday to confiscation of guns, it is unclear how many voters fear confiscation as an abuse of government power — and how many hope the government uses confiscation to get guns off the street.

Aptman acknowledged that surveys and polls provide only a limited understanding of the issues surrounding gun control laws. She lamented that the federal government has not funded scientific studies of gun violence — which Aptman considers a public health issue — since the 1990s.

“The CDC [Centers for Disease Control] has not had any funding to study these things,’’ she said. “The other important thing is that perhaps, if we’re really going to study this long-term and not just in the aftermath, we need to again focus on having these studies.’’